Haiti & parachute journalism – response: Guest blog by TVNZ’s Gordon Harcourt

February 11, 2010

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!

Hirst’s Law

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.

Local fixers

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.


Keeping journos safe: more than a code of practice

May 30, 2010

About a year ago a 16 point code aimed at keeping Australian journalists safe in war zones and other areas of trauma reporting was released at a war reporting conference in Sydney. Last week in Auckland several New Zealand journalists suggested it was about time a similar code was established here.

Award-winning freelancer and producer, Jon Stephenson said that he hadn’t seen any progress in New Zealand in the year since the first Red Cross-sponsored conference on war reporting in Wellington; which coincided with the 2009 Sydney event.

Stephenson made his comments during a panel discussion at a follow-up event held at AUT in Auckland on the 24th of May.

TV3’s experienced correspondent and news anchor, Mike McRoberts, agreed with Stephenson, as did TV1’s Campbell Bennett.

The keynote speaker at the AUT event was former ABC correspondent and now journalism educator Tony Maniaty. It was a great speech in which Maniaty talked about the outsourcing of danger now that most large news organisations in Australia and New Zealand no longer have fully staffed bureaux in many places and tend to only send reporters into hot spots when a story is breaking. He also noted that smaller, lighter digital cameras mean that the safety net of a larger, tightly-knit group no longer exists. Heavy gear and complex camera-audio set ups required three or four people to manage, creating camraderie and support networks:

Today, my students can – and some do – circumvent all that rigmarole by walking around the corner, buying a laptop and HD camera and a cheap air ticket to Kabul, and two days later be filming – alone, unsupported – on the frontline. And in this increasingly prevalent scenario are two more challenges facing us. One, we need to inject compulsory safety training modules into our media courses; and two, we need to address more carefully the vexed issue of freelancers, and what I call ‘the outsourcing of danger’. If networks are not prepared to send staff reporters into hot zones, do they have any right to send others there – for far lower pay, without training or insurance or training, without safety gear?

The idea of running safety training modules in J-schools is an interesting one, but what do we leave out in order to include them? We constantly come up against this “pint pot” problem; I might also add that the news industry needs to take some responsibility here (and shoulder the cost). Though I think that having some sort of safety code is not a bad idea. Read the rest of this entry »


Tim – you’ve been warned – Parachute Journalism #3

February 15, 2010

I am putting Gordon Harcourt’s long reply to the ongoing discussion of parachute journalism up as a new post. It deserves a place on the front page, not buried in the comments queue.

If anyone else wishes to weigh in with a guest post, feel free.

Riposte to riposte to riposte – and pull your head in Tim Selwyn

[guest post by Gordon Harcourt]

I’m glad I’m contributing to a conversation, though I have taken exception to the distasteful view of one of the participants – see below, Tim Selwyn.

Frankly, I don’t particularly care about that sort of opinion, as I’m never going to change it.  I’ve entered into this conversation because it’s extremely important to me that Martin’s students get another angle.

Catch up with the backstory here and here. Read the rest of this entry »


Parachute Journalism debate #2

February 14, 2010

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. Read the rest of this entry »