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Foreign Reporting: Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned

By Michael J. Jordan
Foreign Reporting
Miriam and Lisa have struck pay dirt. It’s a hot late-July day in the Czech mining town of Litvinov, in bucolic northern Bohemia. We’ve just driven into the Janov “estate”—or what the Czechs derogatively call a “ghetto.” Built into a hill on the eastern edge of town, the wall of whitewashed apartment buildings are mostly occupied by Roma, known less kindly here as “Gypsies.”

For young reporters Miriam Ostermann, a 22-year old freelancer for Deutsche Welle (DW) in Bonn, and Lisa Coghlan, a 21-year old Welshwoman who lives in the English midlands, this is the first time they’ve worked on a foreign news story. And a trickly one it is. In Central and Eastern Europe, eyes widen whenever you announce plans to visit to a Roma quarter. It’s the kind of place locals would never visit; they’d cross through only if they had to. Go there, and someone might beat you, folks will warn, or pinch your bag. Neither, it must be said, has ever happened to me in my journalistic forays into Roma neighborhoods.

In Litvinov, the fellows are out early, a lucky break for us. Shy of noon, the casino is closed, yet Stepan Chudik and his friends are hanging in front of the Vietnamese-owned grocery—with its large sign misspelled, Supermaket—nursing a round of cold beers. Stephan’s shirt is unbuttoned to his rotund belly, revealing a heavily tattooed torso with a dragon, a devil and what looks like Al Capone in white fedora. He’s a clear character, so Miriam, Lisa and I approach him.

In particular, we want to know what’s happened since last Nov. 17th, when some 700 weapon-wielding skinheads marched on Janov, where they clashed with about 1,000 Czech riot police. After 17 were injured, half of them police, some Czech observers wondered if Litvinov was on the brink of “ethnic war.” This was not the first time this question arose; a decade ago, some 20 Roma were murdered by Czech extremists, and as recently as April, three Molotov cocktails tossed into a Czech Roma home severely burned a two-year-old girl.

While I’ve visited the Roma on other occasions to report on their lives and circumstances, this time I’m here as a teacher. Miriam and Lisa are participating in the Transitions Online Foreign-Correspondence Training Course, and this reporting trip is part of my work to guide them through the process of how to do overseas reporting. If they can get their first foreign news dateline with this story, it could be crucial street-credibility to help launch their career. From an editor’s perspective, there is a quantum difference between those who talk about what they want to do and a reporter who has proven she can do it.

Replacing Old With New

Young people have always been enamored with overseas adventure and visions of foreign correspondence packed with intrepid reporting and an exotic lifestyle. What strikes me today is how this ambition still pulsates during the digital era when so many older journalists bemoan the state of international reporting. Shuttered foreign bureaus, shrunken budgets, shriveled foreign-news holes, and the parochial obsession with local, local, local all lend credence to the sense of watching an irreplaceable epoch vanish. As David Rennie, The Economist’s European Union correspondent and “Charlemagne” columnist, told our participants, “Those of us who are full staff bureau chiefs are dinosaurs wondering what the big bang just was.”

Ignoring such gloom, the Transitions Online (TOL) program draws legions of optimistic, somewhat idealistic young reporters who brush aside the nay-saying to chase their dreams. During the past three years, I’ve led about 200 through our reporting project. Are they naïve? Or do they grasp something that we should remind ourselves of more often? There will always be a need for people who try to understand the complexity of distant places, explore the lives of its inhabitants, and convey those stories to audiences back home.

Using this summer’s political crisis in Iran as an example, Americans would not want to rely on Farsi-language media inside Iran to tell them about the situation. Even if Iranians write in English, few among us would choose to depend exclusively on those dispatches to inform and educate. While the wire services chronicle events around the globe, and the major news media still pursue the occasional story far from the spotlight, there remains a need for correspondents –many of them freelancers, like me—to humanize, analyze and contextualize events far from home. Solid reporting is essential along with storytelling skills that show, not tell, why what happens here, matters there.

A future stop for some of my students might be at GlobalPost, an online foreign news operation that provides international coverage by “outsourcing foreign news.” Unveiled in January of 2009, GlobalPost relies on a news gathering network of 65 freelance journalists reporting from nearly 50 countries. At a time when regional papers like The Boston Globe and Newsday have closed their overseas bureaus, others such as the New York Daily News are partnering with GlobalPost for their foreign coverage, so Daily News readers will have access to GlobalPost’s multimedia story-telling, on-the-ground reporting, photographs, audio and video. (As full disclosure: I’ve contributed two GlobalPost stories from Bulgaria as well as one from Hong Kong.)

A more worrisome trend is the acceptance of—and increasing reliance on—“citizen” journalists. Looking to bloggers may make sense in places where independent media are not tolerated, such as Iran. Some, though, go one step further. As Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman wrote in 2007, “local and expatriate bloggers capable of offering views and perspectives on local news” are a source of salvation for an international reporting-deprived audience. Jeffrey Dvorkin when he was executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, echoed this sentiment that same year: “The role of the blogger in foreign reporting needs to be rethought. It is just possible that a blogger-correspondent might be the next phase of reporting.”

Cautionary flags should be raised. Often, bloggers are advocates for an idea or ideology, a political party or a particular policy. Therefore, while local perspective is important, some inconvenient yet relevant facts may not be presented. Nor are journalistic tenets like fairness or balance common traits of most bloggers. As Patti McCracken, a freelance colleague in Hainburg, Austria, lamented in a conversation we had, “Since when does such one-sidedness qualify as ‘journalism?’” Bloggers’ opinions have value, of course, and their insights can offer good perspective, but they should not be construed as something they are not.

Hands-on Reporting

At TOL, while lectures are a vital element of the experience, what distinguishes this training is the chance to have a veteran correspondent lead you through hands-on reporting, an opportunity that demystifies the process and tests personal determination to do this kind of work. But first, it is essential to pass along some guidance about certain principles if one chooses to do this kind of freelance reporting.

I modeled the reporting project on the foreign work I’ve done since 1994. I teach this course as both Foreign Correspondence, with the upper-case emphasis on training of future journalists, and also as lower-case foreign correspondence, for the adventurer who may occasionally pursue reporting. The words “parachute journalism” carry the taint of staff reporters who drop into hotspots with little local knowledge. But I emphasize the need for serious, responsible journalism. These students learn the necessity for—and methods involved with—substantial preparation well before they even land in the country. I explain the importance of immersing themselves in the history of the place, along with grasping current trends. We talk about ways to find and contact sources beforehand, and identify key locations. The goal is to hit the ground running, to produce a snapshot of reality that is as accurate as possible.

In July’s course, I taught young people who came from Syria, Uzbekistan and Brazil, as well as Poland, Germany and Italy, along with a batch of native English-speakers. Five weeks before we met, I started e-mailing to advise them on how to produce their own story ideas, which I’d help to whittle down to one solid—and marketable—topic. Each angle we’d consider, I assured them, would offer a view of Czech society today. But to understand this contemporary moment would require them to know the history of what’s happened during the past two decades of turbulent transition from Communist rule to capitalist democracy.

From our first day together, the students’ appetite for gathering information was impressive. Abbey Flanagan, from Australia, and Serena Grassia, from Italy, explored mental health institutions. Arcynta Ali Childs, from New York City, probed domestic violence, and Rob Wells, from Britain, set out to explain atheism in the Czech Republic. On the cultural side, Adriana Munoz Silva and Kelly Ikuma, both from Brazil, were curious about the growing popularity of salsa in Prague. Emily Clymer, another American, was intrigued by the Czech tradition of glass-designing and Cezary Zieba, from Poland, examined local tolerance of marijuana usage.

Each story angle could find a home, if they could find the right fit with a publication. Last year, for example, another Brazilian participant, Fernando Brancoli, delved into illegal Brazilian workers in Prague. He returned home with my suggested edits in hand, then expanded and deepened his feature. He sold his story to “O Globo,” one of South America’s largest papers, and a Brazilian journalism competition named it one of three finalists for the year’s best international reporting.

Tackling a Complex Topic

Miriam and Lisa confronted a different challenge: their story had a news hook. Repercussions from last November’s melee in Litvinov were being felt 4,000 miles away in Canada. Nearly 3,000 Czech Roma have gone to Canada during the past two years, requested asylum and turned the Czech Republic into Ottawa’s second-largest source of asylum-seekers, far more than even Afghanistan and Iraq and behind only Mexico. While most Czechs feel no affection for their Roma, the publicity of fellow citizens “fleeing” to a safer haven has humiliated Prague, which joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. In April, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney implicitly rebuked the Roma claims, saying “it’s hard to believe that the Czech Republic is an island of persecution in Europe.”

Perhaps justifiably, Canadians worry about an even greater surge of Roma asylum seekers. Roughly 250,000 Roma live in the Czech Republic, with 10 million to 12 million Roma scattered across Eastern Europe. In Hungary, where some 500,000 Roma reside, eight have been killed during the past two years. In July, Canada re-imposed visa restrictions against the Czechs, which is an unprecedented action against an EU state. Prague has lobbied Brussels for a united EU response, but found little sympathy.

The fate of the Roma—and what the struggle against them says about Europe—is among the most complex stories I’ve covered in Central and Eastern Europe. The British have grappled with similar Roma-immigration issues in the past. So when Lisa and Miriam, a German-born Canadian, expressed genuine interest in delving into this situation, I felt they made a good decision. Though I offered guidance, I felt good about their efforts as I watched them prepare.

Once in Prague, while they interviewed a Roma activist and government official, I arranged for an interpreter and car to take us to Litvinov. We’d discussed the angle they’d pursue: Do the Roma face a “well-founded fear of persecution” deserving of refugee protections? Or, as critics assert, are they actually economic migrants, hungry for government handouts?

The Interviews Begin

Once with the Roma, Miriam and Lisa’s goal is to get a feel for their lives, come away with information, and provide readers with food for thought. As we approach Stepan, he flips a beer-bottle cap into the trash. One of his friends, Dusan Saritsky, pulls his baseball cap low, sips a beer and totters a bit. As our interpreter, Lucie, introduces us, a police car drives by.

I start the conversation by asking a question, as Miriam and Lisa settle in under a hot sun. “I was a little nervous, but more excited than anything,” Lisa tells me later. Soon she joins in, asking her key questions, while off to the side, Miriam engages Frantisek Horvath in conversation, even though he speaks very broken English.

At first Stepan praises the police, whom he says “had to do something, or there would be war here.” A 57-year old grandfather to 31 children, he tells Lisa, “I don’t feel safe on the streets.” He won’t let his younger grandchildren out at night because “you don’t know who may jump out and kick them. I want to feel like a human, where people don’t look down on me.”

“I’d go back to India,” he says with a smile, “but it’s too crowded.”

Asked if he’s working, Stepan talks about the forestry jobs he held years ago. Nowadays, he says that he’s denied these jobs because of his skin color. “In Canada, I think I could find work,” he says. “If someone arranges my flight, and I can take my two older grandkids with me, I’d leave any time.”

After 90 minutes, we bid goodbye, but not before Frantisek leans on me to buy the gang a round of beers. Usually I don’t buy sources a “gift,” lest it look like payment, but this was their “house” for the afternoon, so I paid the Vietnamese cashier the equivalent of four dollars for five cold beers. We head for the car, on our way to the Litvinov police chief.

These first interviews has already made in impression on the young women. “I realized they are just ordinary people, and as long as we act professionally and also read people’s body language it should go pretty smoothly,” Miriam observes.

In the police headquarters downtown, Police Chief Zdenek Urban offers his perspective. The police, he tells us, were compelled to act in November since “there would have been great violence.” There was, he says, “a mob mentality here, and would have brought bloodshed.” Since then, the Litvinov police have demanded additional officers, patrols and a new police sub-station built in Janov from the Ministry of the Interior. “We never thought we’d need riot gear here,” he says.

Yet, Urban was born and raised in Litvinov, so he’s privy to how Czech-Roma tensions have escalated during the past 20 years. With a Roma influx into Janov and greater unemployment in the area, the original Czech mining community has been transformed into a resentful minority. “The Roma,” Urban says, “live another way of life.”

As we talk through our translator, he dodges our questions whenever we ask whether the Roma are in need of special protection. Does the Roma situation qualify as a “well-founded fear of persecution?” we ask, but he turns our question around. “You should ask the Roma who are up drinking until all hours, littering and fighting,” the chief says, “and see if they will apologize to their Czech neighbors.” As we get up to leave, he hands the four of us a memento of our visit: a single Litvinov Police patch.

By now it is late afternoon. Either we can rush back to Prague for a TOL boat trip or squeeze in more interviewing. The decision rests with my students, as it is their reporting experience. They make the right call, though, opting to return to Janov to better understand the Czech perspective of the November incident. We’d been surprised to hear that the Czechs might have called in the Worker’s Party—many of whose members are skinheads—and cheered them on as they charged the Roma.

As if on cue, we come across 77-year old Marta, who has lived in Janov for more than 30 years. Her husband is a miner. “Sure I was cheering; I was glad something was finally happening,” Marta said. “Now, it’s calmer. Before, we had to call the police nearly every night. They’d come, then leave, and the noise would start again. The gypsies—we don’t call them ‘Roma’ here—they hit and break everything. They should live by the rules like everyone else.” Then, with a grin, she delivers her parting shot: “Give them the visas to Canada and let them go!”

“Going back for more interviews was the right thing to do,” says Lisa, who is finishing her studies at Warwick University and beginning work at a local radio station. “Getting as much information as possible is only fair when reporting on something like this. The issue is so vast, and you want to get every angle in order to come to a fair and responsible conclusion that you can be proud of.” More important, the women agree that the experience stoked their appetite for foreign reporting. “This trip just proved to me how much I enjoy talking to people,” Miriam says, “and made me even hungrier to see what else is out there!”

Michael J. Jordan is a Bratislava-based correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and does freelance reporting for other publications. He also teaches journalism in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and during the fall 2009 semester, at Hong Kong Baptist University. He blogs at Jordan’s reporting and multimedia presentation about Kosovar Roma people is available on Transitions Online.

When Lisa Coghlan returned to school, she completed work on the article she reported about the Roma community in the Czech Republic. It was published on the Web site of her school’s student newspaper, The Boar.