What is it like to be a foreign correspondent—and report with empathy and pragmatism?
The fifth webinar in our business journalism series focused on how to avoid stereotyping when “parachuting in”—either in person or by computer—to report on stories in other locations. The panelists included Preetika Rana, a tech reporter at the Wall Street Journal who has covered India, China, and now the US; Annalisa Merelli, a reporter at Quartz from Italy who lives in the US and has reported from India; and Neha Wadekar, an independent multimedia journalist who is reporting across Africa.
Tripti Lahiri, Quartz’s Asia bureau chief, led the panel in a discussion about how to approach reporting on businesses operating outside their home-base, and use an outsider’s perspective to surface stories.
Quartz’s business journalism seminars are geared towards early-career reporters and editors, and focus on the fundamentals of business journalism, how the industry is changing, and how we can make the field more accessible to both journalists and audiences.
Panelists walked through how they ended up where they are, and what they learned from reporting in various places.
Use your perspective, but with humility
Independent multimedia journalist Neha Wadekar’s first paid reporting experience saw her writing from Reuters’ Nairobi bureau about Uber drivers getting loans from Kenyan banks to finance car purchases. After initially feeling a bit lost, she found her feet thanks to a photographer who was able to guide her, and an editor who helped her understand what the nut graf needed to be.
Originally from the US, Wadekar said it can be hard to not have a “cultural familiarity” with a place when you first arrive. But when you’re starting in a different location, everything also feels fresh, and this can be an advantage, as you take notes and write down observations that others in the country might not have caught, generating rich material for stories.
It’s a balance between coming in with fresh eyes, while not being hemmed in by not having insider knowledge, Tripti Lahiri pointed out.
As a foreign reporter, you’re “entirely dependent on a group of people who are helping [you] because they care about their country and because they want this story to get out,” said WSJ’s Preetika Rana. Listen to them, she advised.
Be prepared, but also flexible
Rana’s first story as a foreign correspondent was reporting on the Nepal earthquakes in 2015. Her advice: Read everything you can on the topic, so you’re not repeating the same stories, and work with local reporters or stringers who speak the local language. “There’s a lot you can do before you land there,” she said.
She advised being flexible in your approach. When Rana tried to reach the epicenter of the earthquake in Nepal, the chopper assigned to press was lost. She eventually found a taxi driver who was willing to take her. She often had to travel from her mountainous location in order to dictate the story to her editor over the phone.
Rana also had to navigate cultural differences while covering healthcare in Asia. She described people in China as being more reserved when approached by a foreign reporter compared to India, where she’s from, and where people can be chatty.
Moving to San Francisco to cover tech has also required her to adapt. Because of the pandemic, she couldn’t meet sources the typical way, over lunch or coffee, and instead had to reach out over LinkedIn or email. Being honest with people and saying that she was trying to find her footing led to one introduction after another, she says. “Most of my connections were found online,” she said—an equalizing factor, Lahiri added.
Build a network
Quartz reporter Annalisa Merelli was not a trained journalist when she moved to India from Italy—she had studied semiotics. She chose India because she thought it would be more tolerable learning to work in English there as opposed to a country like the US. Another advantage of reporting from India was that there were stories everywhere, compared to somewhere like New York City, where there is a greater ratio of reporters to story.
To get up to speed, she made friends with local journalists. She soon discovered that foreign correspondents would often just copy stories from local papers. She made it her to mission to avoid doing that and work with “colleagues in the broadest sense,” she said.
This meant not just reporting stories and being accurate, but also revealing things in a way that wasn’t alienating locals. Fortunately Merelli, who was running an online publication about travel and culture, had a network of advisors and reporters who made sure that they maintained their tone and appeal for locals.
Is the goal to be accepted?
Foreign correspondents have gotten pushback in recent years for producing simplistic coverage or even “othering” communities. Wadekar says a reporter’s relationship with the people they report on is a delicate balance. There are situations when people are extremely vulnerable, and as someone who is not from the country, “you have to be very careful about what you say and how you say it,” she said.
It’s easy for reporters to rely on shorthand descriptions that fall into old tropes—”people are tired of that,” she said. When she’s writing, she tries to keep in mind how it might read to both an international and a local audience.
Sensationalizing or dramatizing the situation is “totally unacceptable,” she said. She gives the example of how she tried to surface some of the nuance in the controversy over female genital cutting in a recent story for VICE.
Rana had a similar experience when she wrote about the Chinese scientist who caused outrage when he created the world’s first gene-edited babies to be resistant to HIV infections. She decided to dig into his motivations. The scientist saw his work as part of a movement to address injustices experienced by HIV-positive communities in China. It’s an easy way to go with what the mainstream press thinks, she said. “I would really urge people to go deeper,” she said.
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