Parachute Journalism debate #2

OK, so it’s not complete and it’s nearly the end of the weekend, but I felt the need to start my defence strategy – you know: “Strike while the iron’s hot”.

Or in this case, “Write while the brain is febrile”.

If you came in late, this post is a response to a riposte by TVNZ reporter  Gordon Harcourt to some previous comments of mine on National Radio’s Mediawatch about parachute journalism in the recent (Jan-Feb 2010) earthquake and humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

I’ve already told Gordon – via email – that I think he’s possibly over-reacted to my Mediawatch commentary, but I want to consider his points one-by-one here to a) defend myself and b) put the discussion about “parachute journalism” into some context.

I say defend myself because Gordon’s headline for his reply/riposte was rather blunt:
“Parachute journalism” and why journalists should ignore Dr Martin Hirst

In my line of work – I teach and research in journalism studies at AUT University – I would be rather worried if journalists were to ignore me completely. However, I can take a bit of criticism – 15+ years in newsrooms and nearly the same in the ivory tower have thickened my skin somewhat.

Further, I’m absolutely sure that Gordon is not a vicious troll just into the game to cause a blood nose. In fact,  I’m sure we’d enjoy each other’s company (I’ll let you know, there’s a planned rendezvous soon) There is a genuine debate to be had about PJ and the other Haiti issues and it should remain collegial (in the sense of one colleague to another, rather than undergraduate fart jokes, wedgies, brawls and beer bongs).

So let’s start a) & b) with a riff from Gordon’s re-poste:

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.

Zing! Pee-keeywowhhhhn. The lead [pron:  led] ricocheted off the parapets. The ivory tower is under siege; small arms fire. Dr Hirst had better duck and cover his sorryass.  But wait, he’s not alone. If it’s not exactly the cavalry, then at least some eminence grise comes to the aid of the bespectacled apostate [even this is not reliable on such a vague point of theological history].

Evidence the first:

And so it is in journalism today, where intense media competition and ’round-the-clock deadlines have made for some disturbingly predictable and often distorted accounts of places and the people who live there.

Politely, the practice is called “parachute journalism“,* the dispatching of globe-trotting reporters and camera crews to the likes of Sandpoint, Idaho, and Kearney, Neb., and Union, S.C., to cover the latest breaking news.

There’s nothing polite about some of the outcomes.

Parachute Journalism

By Marjie Lundstrom
2001 Poynter Ethics Fellow
Senior Editor, Columnist & Writing Coach,
The Sacramento Bee

As an aside, Marjie is half-journalist, half-pointyhead, so I’m on reasonable ground already.

This is a range-finder, but also a smoke-screen. You see the PJ phenomenon is not confined to far-away and exotic locales outside the suburban centre. It is global and  perhaps a protege of  globalisation. We have begun to mesh time and space, the instant and the now are our rubrics, rather than historical memory and context. My colleague Wayne Hope is my go-to expert on these issues and he’s convincing:

Digital technologies globally interlink finance, production, consumption, mass communication, and cyberculture. The processes of interlinkage generate the sense that time is accelerating towards instantaneity. Promoters and critical observers of such developments have created a proliferating discourse of ‘real time’. This key phrase and its associated terminology covers a diversity of referent spaces (e.g. cyberculture, financial flows, supply-chain management, on-line selling, live media events). In the context of global capitalism, discursive constructions of ‘real time’ are interrelated with new temporal constructions of systemic power. The nature of this interrelationship is obscured by the ideological features of ‘real time’ terminology.

Global capitalism and the critique of real time, Time & Society, 2006

So we don’t need context, just real-time (or close to it) reporting. The fix for the audience is instant gratification, for the news media it’s simplicity of story and structure.

By-the-way, I don’t think sending reporters to Haiti, or anywhere else, is an “appalling sin”. If it’s the right reporter for the job and they’re properly briefed for the assignment, it’s a fine thing to have good, insightful, intelligent, honest and culturally-appropriate coverage.

The problem is context. We’ll come to the history lesson v. breaking news argument soon, but first a bit more on PJs and context:

I’m nothing if not fair. there are those who believe parachute journalism can enhance an audience’ experience:

Interviews with editors and reporters at 50 daily newspapers found that 45 papers practiced ad hoc reporting trips abroad, thus substantiating that parachute journalism is a growing trend.

Newspaper Research Journal (2006)

OK, so what’s the drill?

Using local journalists

I suggested in my Mediawatch comments that maybe local Haitian journalists could have been hired to file for Kiwi news networks. However, Gordon challenges this and asks a couple of relevant questions:

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?

Gordon adds: Can they speak English? and Would they give New Zealand priority in their filing?

Well, he may have a small point here – specific to the earthquake situation, but not strong enough to make a general “law” out of.

According to Reporters without Borders (RSF) and the IFEX website, it was pretty much chaos-on-a-stick for Haitian journalists in the first days after the quake hit.

The death toll for journalists is unknown. Surviving Haitian journalists are unable to work because they have lost family and homes, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) after talking to Haitian journalist Guylar Delva.

IFEX 20 January 2010
Survivors exhausted and traumatised; media crippled

The report goes on to talk about how relief efforts have got some broadcast outlets up and running again, particularly local radio. But a few days ago another blogpost on the CPJ site suggests around 26 Haitian journalists were killed. Most television stations in Port-au-Prince are off the air, CPJ says that’s about a dozen. The CPJ is coordinating action to assist Haitian journalists and news media recover from the disaster. RSF is also concerned about press freedom in Haiti and is reporting a recent incident when a press photographer had his camera confiscated by US marines – he was taking pictures of a protest march in the capital.

On a brighter note, RSF has established an open media centre in Port-au-Prince to link Haitian journalists with equipment and their international colleagues.

I guess we might have argued this point to a stand still. I see no reason why Haitian journalists cannot be used. They are educated, they speak English and they want to work. They also know their country well. I stand by that, but I also recognise the difficulties of operating under the emergency conditions that existed in the first days after the January 12 catastrophe.

Before leaving this topic I want to add just a little more context. Journalists in Haiti have a proud history of defending media freedom, we have to respect this and not dismiss them as francophone or Creole speaking lesser-professionals than any Western reporter parachuted in to cover the crisis.

Parachute politics

This is an interesting area of this debate and Gordon introduces Palestine/Israel into the mix, so let’s roll with that:

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.

Yep, Gordon’s right about this. If you’ve been to EM before, you’ll know I don’t pull any punches on the Palestine question Gaza, Israel, and that I’m hardcore on the war on terror.

So what to make of this intervention? A shot across the bows, or – to continue the castle metaphor – boiling oil on the Saracens?

“I often felt that I could be reading the Yellow Pages as narration, and regardless of what I said, the pictures were so compelling, so dramatic, they would create the impression Israel was the aggressor,” said Scherzer, who today wears the hat of media adviser to both the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Ronald Lauder Foundation.

Some of the finest journalists in the world have been or are in Israel, she noted, as it is considered one of the most prestigious foreign postings.

But most news outlets don’t have “years” to invest. So they rely on “parachute journalism,” where they drop reporters into global hotspots.

It’s likely that hundreds of journalists have landed with little or no prior knowledge of the history of the region or conflict, or of the main players now at its core.

But within hours, many must begin reporting on the conflict with some appearance of authority.

The less they know of the background, the more vulnerable journalists may be to a propaganda assault by a seemingly trustworthy source.

Ex-CNN reporter: ‘Parachute journalists’ ill-prepared

by MICHAEL J. JORDAN, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Sorry, a long quote, but it’s important. You see, here a pro-Zionist reporter is criticising parachute journalism for all the right reasons, but for a very deliberate political purpose.

This is just one example of how conflicted this debate is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Take this example from closer to home.

It’s a criticism of PJ from the most unlikely of sources, including those who might be apologists for certain undemocratic practices of the recent past. To-whit:

A recent wave of articles – mostly from New Zealand and Australian media – has criticised the direction taken by the Fiji authorities following the abrogation of the 1997 Constitution in April 2009.

These articles should be seen as yet another example of “parachute journalism,” where journalists are sent to political trouble spots to compile informed analysis when they have little understanding of the socio-cultural context.

An impeccable source is quoth thus.

You see, there is no black-and-white here. As I tell my students [constantly] ethics is a grey area, fraught with contradictions and fault lines. Not only is it a matter of personal philosophy, there are real, material and powerful social forces involved in each scenario you might put forward as your paradigm case.

Another angle on this is to go to the Gods. In this case, let’s settle for Ted Koppel:

“Look, I don’t care how good you are, how experienced you are, if you’ve never been in a country before, and you are just parachuted in to cover a crisis, all you can do is skim the surface of what is going on,” says Koppel, who is now managing editor of the Discovery Channel. “You don’t have sources, you don’t have the background, you don’t have the context.”

The Limits of the Parachute

American Journalism Review (Oct 2006),
Sherry Ricchiardi
AJR senior contributing writer.

There’s that dirty word “context” again.

I wanted to take this further, but I’ve wasted nearly a whole Sunday – I need to go on a date with Moac, it’s Valentine’s day after all – so here’s some pointers to the rest of the argument.

  • We see buy-in material all the time on TV news, particularly from the USA and the UK. We have no trouble using locals on those stories, why is Haiti different?
  • If TVNZ and TV3 actually kept bureaus in places like the Carribean, rather than just London, New York and Washington DC, then the argument for sending someone would be stronger.
  • Why do we need a ‘Kiwi’ perspective on disasters like Haiti anyway? Surely we’re global enough to know that it’s going to be horrible and that people are dying etc. We can interpret that for ourselves.
  • But, we can’t fill in the blanks in our knowledge of Haiti all that easily and without it, we end up with a bunch of racist stereotypes and not much else.

I want to add a little note of music here. I’m including the lyrics to this Bare Naked Ladies song ‘Helicopters’. It is poignant and pertinent.

Play the clip and read or sing along.


This is where the helicopters came to take me away
This is where the children used to play

This is only half a mile away from the attack
This is where my life changed in a day
And then it changed back
Buried in the din of rotor noise and close explosions
I do my best to synthesize the sounds and my emotions
This is where the allies bombed the school,
They say by mistake
Here nobody takes me for a fool, just for a fake
Later at the hotel bar, the journalists are waiting
I hurry back to my guitar while they’re commiserating

And I’ll be leaving soon
I’ll be leaving soon

Just as soon as we were on the ground
We were back in the jet
Just another three day foreign tour we’d never forget
It’s hard to sympathize with all this devastation
Hopping ’round from site to site like tourists on vacation

And I’ll be leaving soon
I’ll be leaving soon

I can’t help anyone cause everyone’s so cold
Everyone’s so skeptical of everything they’re told
And even I get sick of needing to be sold

Though it’s only half a month away, the media’s gone
An entertaining scandel broke today, but I can’t move on
I’m haunted by a story and I do my best to tell it
Can’t even give this stuff away, why would I sell it?
Everybody’s laughing, while at me they point a finger
A world that loves its irony must hate the protest singer

So I’ll be leaving soon
I’ll be leaving soon
I’ll be leaving soon
I’ll be leaving soon

* I actually reversed the , and the ” in this phrase. Just so you know.

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