Les Whittington – Don’t get lost in the Weeds

The Challenge: It goes without saying that reporting from abroad is one of the greatest opportunities and challenges a journalist can have. The experience is like no other and, if tackled with an open mind, creativity and a well-honed sense of what’s needed by one’s outlet and one’s readers/viewers/listeners, can be rewarding and endlessly enjoyable.

Backgrounding: Obviously, understanding the news and background of the countries or region that one is covering is vital. As with any story, the goal is to assess the background and find the leading edge of the story. Of course, firsthand experience on the ground makes all the difference. Keep an open mind and, especially when considering stories that are not straight news, let the story come to you as much as possible.

Keep a Wide Lens: You are the eyes and ears of your readers/viewers/listeners, and you can bring to life experiences, places, people and events that most of them will not see firsthand. Try to paint the picture and keep the sense of wonder alive (that is, don’t get jaded and complacent about your surroundings, the people and the events, even when you get more accustomed to a region or country or city.) And always remember your viewers/readers.

Detail: As with any writing or reporting, detail is everything. Colours, numbers, specifics and exact quotes give stories more vividness and authenticity. Try to show the story, not just tell the story.

Context: One of the most challenging—and important—aspects of foreign reporting is explaining the context of an event; what it means in the evolution of a story. It takes practice, careful attention and an understanding of the background of a story to do this in a simple, easily understandable way. It also needs to be done briefly.

In print, it can be done with a nut graph or worked into the top of the story. And it also needs to be done with an awareness of how much the viewers/readers know about the story. Remember that this element is crucial to making the story mean something to the readers/viewers and in holding their attention. It’s a part of the job that is often ignored or given short shrift but editors should insist on good context on all foreign stories.

Drama: The human and historical drama of world events is of course compelling and endlessly fascinating. Don’t forget to fill stories with the voices of all kinds of people, not just leaders and politicians. Try as much as possible to tell the story through the voices and eyes of the average person on the scene.

Sweep of History: With major stories, remember as much as possible to link events to the larger unfolding of history in a region or country. This seems obvious but it’s easy for a reporter to get lost in the weeds when covering an ongoing story. Readers/viewers of course want to know what something means and why it happened, not just what happened.

Info: It’s not always easy to wake up in a hotel in a strange city and realize you now have to tell thousands of readers/viewers about what is going on there. One obvious help is to talk with as many diplomats, NGOs, experts, peacekeepers as possible. Many of these people have very valuable insights or information or they can put you in touch with worthwhile interviewees, etc. (Of course, information gathered from anyone—be they diplomats or NGOs—has to be evaluated for objectivity, truth and relevance.)

A Note on Personal Security: The world can be a dangerous place, and it’s extremely important to know what you are doing and, above all, always be aware of your situation and what’s going on around you. Talk to other foreign reporters as much as possible to get the lay of the land in a particular locale. Be very careful about taking chances. And don’t confide in people you do not know well. Risk must be carefully balanced with the need to get the job done, especially when one is a newcomer to a city or region.

One Last Thing: As with any reporting, my advice is: Keep Your Mouth Shut. People want to tell their stories and will often do so if you give them a chance to talk. So it’s important to resist the temptation to interrupt or try to impress the interviewee with how much you know about the topic. Let people talk and you’ll be surprised what you learn.

Les Whittington now writes for the Toronto Star, based in the paper’s Ottawa bureau. He has reported from Europe and was a foreign correspondent in Latin America in the early 1990s. He is also author of the book The Banks –the Ongoing Battle for Control of Canada’s Richest Business.


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