So, You Want to Be a Foreign Correspondent?
Updated: Sep 25, 2022
By: Meheer Commuri
Last Updated on: January 31, 2022
Photo by: Glenn Carstens-Peters / Unsplash
Persecution, warfare, and genocide are just a few of humanity’s struggles. Conflict devolves humans into actors of unimaginable atrocity. Being a journalist means encapsulating this hideousness, its human effects, and having the luxury of a return flight.
Veteran reporters like Robert Nickelsberg and Eileen Markey know firsthand that no matter how chaotic or violent overseas assignments get, they can always go home.
Photojournalist Nickelsberg has covered civil wars in Central America in the 80s and, later, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Journalist and author Markey has written at length about the legacy of Maura Clarke, a radical nun who was murdered by the military in El Salvador. They both know the physical and mental trauma conflict zones inflict on the local population and the toll they take on journalists.
Many think a journalist’s life is filled with glamour and excitement as they travel from place to place, taking down corrupt regimes. This is not quite accurate. Their world can be mundane, as they plan everything from how to park and how to avoid getting shot.
Getting out of a place is just as hard as getting in. One of the most important things every journalist should know is “how to get out,” Nickelsberg said. “Always plan ahead” and know your escape tactic before you go in. Never count on things going perfectly, prepare for the exact opposite. Even if it’s as simple as remembering “to park your car facing out.”
When blocked from getting to a village, it can be because a soldier wants cash. Money is required to get access to places dictators do not want you to see. To get through this, “know who to pay (bribe), watch others go in and do it first, then follow,” said Nickelsberg. Bribery will have to be used to squeeze into places more times than any journalist initially expects.
Nickelsberg added, “I always carry cash [for bribery] with me when I travel; fives here, tens here, and twenties here,” pointing to each of his pant pockets and his shirt pocket.
Once in the conflict zone, knowing how to handle tough circumstances is invaluable. “You have to be a good liar… to be able to handle the military… the police… The police are people watchers, they can tell when you are nervous,” said Nickelsberg. Being able to come up with and sell believable and spontaneous lies is essential, more so is the ability to remain calm.
Having the ability to spot lies is just as important as having the ability to tell them. “You need to be able to understand when they’re lying to you,” said Markey, who wrote A Radical Faith, on the life of Maura Clarke, an American nun who was, along with three other churchwomen, murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1980.
Markey says that to get the best story, reporters should not just rely on diplomats and elites whose experiences are similar to theirs but should instead venture “away from the capital city.” Doing this can lead to “a very different story,” explained Markey. “You get the best knowledge from the locals,” try to “interview people who [have] never been interviewed before.” If these people open up, the best information comes out and a completely new narrative arises.
“I spend most of my energy talking to people who’ve never been spoken to before [by Journalists],” she said, “and I learn a really different story… you don’t get that if you only talk to the usual sources.”
A story is only as good as the quotes. Giving voice to a story legitimizes it and gives it the credibility it needs to be taken seriously. Journalists never underestimate the importance of interviews. For good interviews, one must “be invisible, listen more than you talk… [and] shut up,” said Markey. This allows the interviewees to open up and discuss the issues they find salient. “The best reporting I’ve done was where I sat and was quiet the whole time.” Markey also added that “humility is key for being a good reporter… know that you’ll never be the smartest person in the room,” always treat interviewees as equals.
This ‘listen more than you speak’ approach stops journalists from projecting their own paradigms and social constructions onto their story. “Reporters should be traitors… only loyal to the truth,” said Markey, and the truth comes with listening.
The truth also comes with research, lots and lots of research. Both Nickelsberg and Markey stress that one of, if not the best things you can do as a journalist is to read and dig through the literature. “Good reporters are literate,” said Markey. You cannot just ride on the “surface of understanding,” Nickelsberg said. He added, “many journalists came to Afghanistan knowing only about Afghanistan, to understand Afghanistan you have to understand Pakistan, to understand Pakistan, you must understand India.” Only a true journalist does this level of prep work.
Being a foreign correspondent has the potential to do so much good, as well as so much damage.
“At its best, international reporting bridges distances” and differences, Markey said. “It connects you and forces you to confront” the uncomfortable events; death in Syria, famine in Yemen, genocide in Myanmar. “At its worst it makes people exotic, it reinforces the power allegiances that already exist, it [strengthens] racism and colonialism and exoticism… It dismisses people.”