This commentary was supplied by TVNZ’s Gordon Harcourt. He was upset by my comments on Mediawatch a couple of weekends ago about the coverage of the Haiti disaster.
You can remind yourself of what I said by re-visiting my earlier posts on Haiti.
You can listen to the full discussion between Colin Peacock, Mike McRoberts and myself at the Mediawatch site.
I am happy to publish Gordon’s response in full. I haven’t got time right now to answer his criticisms, but I will come back to this issue, perhaps over the weekend.
“Parachute journalism” and why journalists should ignore Dr Martin Hirst
As a former student (many, many years ago) of what is now AUT, I was genuinely shocked to hear Dr Martin Hirst’s comments on Radio NZ’s Mediawatch last month. Rather than silently fume, I think the responsible thing is to vent openly, so that Dr Hirst’s students – and readers of this blog – can get a different viewpoint.
In his criticism of TV3’s Mike McRoberts and his Haiti quake coverage, Dr Hirst dutifully trotted out the old ‘parachute journalist don’t have context’ line, as though it were some appalling sin for journalism companies to send their correspondents to do some journalism by covering the vast humanitarian disaster of the Haiti quake.
Then Dr Hirst took his argument to a startling new level:
“There are plenty of journalists in Haiti already who don’t have this parachute thing, they know what the story is on the ground and can give you the background and context and all that kind of stuff. And you could actually make a counter humanitarian argument and suggest that what TV3 could have done is actually pay the Haitian journalists on the ground to cover the story for them and thereby indirectly donating money back into that community.” [Emphasis added]
This is utterly fatuous on a purely practical level. More seriously, I argue it implies that not only is no journalist capable of doing their job in another country, but that it is somehow morally corrupt for them to try!
Firstly, the practical: A journalist’s job is to supply material to his or her outlet. That’s why you send people to a story.
How does Dr Hirst know that this legion of broadcast-capable Haitian (or Haitian-based) journalists exists? And did they and their families and their staff and their equipment all miraculously survive the quake?
And do these surviving, broadcast-capable Haitian journalists all speak broadcast quality English? (Or should NZ broadcasters only hire Creole- or French-speaking journalists, for the correct “context”?)
And will these surviving, broadcast-capable, English-speaking Haitian journalists put New Zealand television at the top of their client list, despite the fact that – in deference to Hirst’s Law – no international media organisation has sent staff to Haiti?
While I paint an extreme scenario, every element of it is consistent with what I am calling Hirst’s Law. Genuflecting to “context”.
Secondly, and far more seriously, I find it repulsive to imply that journalists cannot and should not attempt to cover foreign stories like the Haiti quake. Instead, they should only sub-contract their trade to the ready and waiting locals, to ensure the correct “context”.
This is pernicious nonsense. How about trying to do your job better, understand the “context” and convey it to your audience? Genuflecting to “context” is an excuse for not doing your job. “Context” is what every Israeli foreign ministry official and Palestinian commentator demand every time they see a news report they don’t like.
Sorry, but you can’t give a history lesson in every news story! It’s just not practical to include a full account of Haiti’s catastrophic history of US-sponsored dictators and rapacious French reparations. In my book, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run the news story. I readily agree, however, that news outlets should provide context and background in their overall output.
Locals at risk
Thirdly, in many bits of the world it’s actually dangerous for journalists to do their job honestly. If I were commissioning coverage of events in Sri Lanka right now, I would not hire a Sri Lankan for commentary on the most loathsome excesses of the Rajapakse regime. He or she would risk arrest (or much, much worse) by telling the truth right now.
Fourthly – and I attribute this point to my colleague Tim Watkin of Q&A, even though he was not a fan of TV3’s despatch of Mike McRoberts – almost all foreign media do employ local “fixers”, so they are “donating money back into that economy”. Why do they not simply employ these people to do the job directly?
Bluntly, they are extraordinarily unlikely to be capable of doing all the things a staff correspondent can do, under extreme pressure. I was a fixer/producer for the BBC’s Australia correspondent Nick Bryant, in his coverage of the Hillary funeral two years ago. Why didn’t the BBC just hire me directly, given my six year service with the BBC? That’s easy – I’m not as good a correspondent as Nick Bryant.
I would probably not be capable of filing numerous radio and TV packages, and World Service despatches, and BBC Online stories. That’s Nick Bryant’s job. He’s got the kit, he knows how to use it, he knows the multitude of outlets he must serve, and those outlets trust him to deliver. But mostly, the bulletin producers – and, more importantly the BBC viewers and listeners – know and trust Nick Bryant as a journalist. They know he operates within BBC editorial principles. And I think they trust him to understand the “context”.
Journalists and the injured in Haiti
Finally, Dr Hirst made his comments in a discussion that began with looking at the many instances of journalists making a story of treating or helping an injured Haitian. Mike McRoberts delivered a quite compelling report about a young woman with a broken leg. I thought TV3’s treatment of that story – including “context” – was exemplary, and working journalists should completely ignore Hirst’s comments.
Gordon Harcourt Reporter – TVNZ Fair Go 10th February 2010
Gordon Harcourt has been a journalist for 20 years. He was there when TV3 first went to air in November 1989, and since then has worked for every major broadcaster in New Zealand. From 1998 to 2000 he was Producer of backchat, TVNZ’s arts and media commentary programme, presented by Bill Ralston. Following its demise he left New Zealand, and worked as a news producer for BBC World Television till 2007, based in London. He is now a reporter for TVNZ’s Fair Go, and has recently filled in for Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine till Noon, and for Kim Hill on Saturday morning.