Journalists who parachute into foreign countries to cover global health and human rights issues are susceptible to a "culture gap" they might not realize, Jill Filipovic wrote Wednesday for Columbia Journalism Review.
That culture gap "is the new normal. With global health and human rights coverage increasingly funded by foundations that organize reporting trips, Western journalists who don't understand the nuances of a place are parachuting in for a week, charged with covering some of the most complex and distressing aspects of human existence," Filipovic wrote.
"These trips are invaluable resources, and global health reporting would simply not have the reach it does without them. But this setup also has many potential pitfalls that can prevent well-meaning reporters from accurately conveying the subtleties of their sources' experience, and it's our professional obligation to address them. Admitting our own fallibilities can be terrifying, but remaining alert and self-aware can help mitigate the problem.
Filipovic also wrote, "'One mistake I kept seeing people make is starting interviews with the answers they're hoping for,' says Sarika Bansal, a freelance reporter focused on global health, and who has been on five international reporting trips in the past two years. 'For example, starting with, "Do you breastfeed your child exclusively?" People know what the right answer is. There’s a real danger with the people you're interviewing answering the way they know the journalist wants them to, instead of feeling like they're being really honestly engaged with.'
"On organized reporting trips, arranged sources often see you not just as a journalist asking questions, but as an extension of the organization funding valuable services and programs. There's often a desire to give the 'right' answer in order to show that the program is working, and that more funding is needed. Directing a question toward a particular answer — 'Do you breastfeed your child exclusively?' versus 'How do you feed your child?'— unintentionally guides your source into offering what they think you want to hear.
"Think not only about the sources you speak to, but how those sources got to you, and who you're not talking to, especially when you're speaking with sources pre-selected by the foundations and nonprofits underwriting the trip. . . ."