CAIRO—I’m an avid parachutist, though I’ve never jumped from a plane. A “parachute journalist” is a reporter who drops into a country for a relatively short period of time, files a story or handful of dispatches, and then leaves.
“Parachutist” is a pejorative in the news business, based on the sense that an outside journalist who stays in a country or town for just a short time is unlikely to have a sufficient feel for the area’s political and cultural landscape. “Politely,” one Poynter.org essay put it, “parachute journalism is the dispatching of globe-trotting reporters and camera crews to cover the latest breaking news There’s nothing polite about some of the outcomes.”
Naturally, parachuting is not ideal when uninitiated outsiders cover breaking news. In feature writing or political commentary, though, parachute journalism can add to our understanding of global affairs if a reporter has adequate prep time for the assignment.
I’m traveling in mid-June to Kenya for this purpose, to file a dispatch for CJR on the potential for medical journalism in that country, a nation with a vibrant journalistic culture and a moderate degree of press freedom, but mammoth public health challenges. I have never been to Kenya and I’m certainly no expert on the East African country, and I don’t speak Kiswahili. By the time I touch down in Nairobi, though, I will have had the better part of a month to gather research about Kenyan journalism and its health challenges for the piece I plan to file.
In 2010, before I landed a column at CJR, I was in Singapore for ten days attending a conference, sightseeing with my wife, and writing a commentary about limits to free speech in that country. I initially pitched the piece to GlobalPost, and an editor from that publication asked me bluntly, “What expertise do you have on Singapore?,” concerned, presumably, that I was parachuting onto the island with only a few, thin threads of knowledge on my back. She was right to ask, but my answer was that I’d been pulling research together for the essay for the better part of five months. And, if I may say so, I think the essay turned out well.
Suspicion of parachuting reporters is understandable. Revolution subsumes Tunisia, and some reporter with no knowledge of North Africa and who speaks no Arabic or French rushes to the country to try to cover the complexities of the uprising. Most reporters who jump from planes don’t have months in advance to gather research for their stories, establish e-mail contacts, or map out a thoughtful plan to travel the country.
While I support the general idea of planned parachuting, it’s certainly a good idea for reporters to target countries in which they speak one of the main local languages. I report mostly in Arabic-speaking countries when I’m outside the U.S., which affords me more than a dozen countries in which I speak the primary language.
Nicholas Kristof fully embraces the parachute model. Based in the U.S. for The New York Times, Kristof usually spends large portions of the year abroad, reporting from remote and tense locations, including rural China, Bahrain, and Somaliland. In May 2011 he was live-Tweeting about police raids on slave brothels in Calcutta, India. Kristof has enough time and resources to make parachute projects in these places work.
I would agree that the GlobalPost model is ideal: Hiring correspondents who live in the countries and regions they cover. But there is also journalistic space for foreign reporting from outsiders who have adequate time to compile necessary background research. And this is not just acceptable, but necessary to increase coverage of conflict and plight wherever they aren’t getting enough mention—precisely why the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting pays to send journalists to foreign drop zones where pressing hardship is uncovered.
Literally as I write this, I’m watching on half of my computer screen the NBC Nightly News broadcast from the previous evening, and Brian Williams is reporting from Joplin, Missouri in a crisp windbreaker and nary a hair misplaced. Al Roker is at his side in a bright yellow NBC poncho. They’ll be in Joplin for a day or two and hit up the Cracker Barrel on the way out of town. This is not the kind of parachute journalism I’m after. I don’t long for thin coverage of a known crisis, but, rather, deeply researched news of lesser-known struggles.