Category Archives: International Journalism

The trick of global media ethics

I asked Jeremiah (the photographer who traveled with me) a few days ago to make sure that everything in my story was truthful to what we saw. Global ethics are a tricky subject for a first time international journalist.

Unlike most stories that I have written, the sources in the story will probably not ever see how I portrayed them. My memory, my notes and the few post-trip translation checks are all that I have to make sure that I’m telling the story as it is.

For example, I talk quite a bit about parasites in some of the small villages, but there was no doctor present and no way for me to 100 percent confirm that these children were afflicted. I had to make that judgment call with the evidence: A local social worker had given them parasite pills, there were big bellies and scrawny arms on many children.

This is the most impossible fact checking I’ve ever done.

Story Update: We turned in the “final” draft to be graded by our writing coaches yesterday. It took me about three hours just to get up the courage to hit the print button. It’s hard to let a story go. Luckily, I’m not yet submitting for publication, so I have plenty of time to continue making updates. I’ll post the excerpts in a week when they have been chosen.

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Media (dis)trust not unique to America

The media are universally easily subject to blame. I guess it’s a good thing because it keeps us journalists in check to tell the truth.

Anyway, I had the thought today while watching a DVD of some of my interviews in Guatemala while a friend translated.

I felt very well-received by my sources in Guatemala, but he pointed out when my translators left out some doubts. None of the information was pertinent to my story, but some of it to our relations with the subjects. One man leaned forward after a question that he assumed could make his business look bad and said “What is your purpose?”

It only seems natural to be defensive, I suppose, when put in front of foreign journalists. The man in this example feared that we were trying to make his business look bad in comparison to America. This was not unique to the country I deal with these fears all the time in my interview subjects, especially those in business.

The frustration in dealing with press goes all the way to the top. I read this editorial about President Alvaro Colom getting upset with the press for accusations. The Guatemala Times offers some great (and humorous) advice:

“We know that picking a fight with the Press is a waste of energy and time. You never win anyway. There are more important things to do.”

In short, I’m not trying to screw you interviewees over (unless the truth indeed screws you), I just want to write my story truthfully.

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The trouble with translating culture

I’m now in the process of writing a rough draft and having trouble translating language and culture for American readers.

Not only does my story have a severe lack of quotes because I had to work through a translator, but I find myself needing to explain a lot more than I thought would be needed. Seeing things firsthand makes it easier to grasp a culture. Writing about them is a beast. I got stuck explaining pilafs today–a mere detail in my story.

As mentioned in my previous post, the global sphere of information means the need to translate ideas to other cultures. It seems that the translation problems are going both ways. I’m not the only one struggling.

Luckily, much of my information is on video tape, thanks to documentary maker Isaac Brown who worked alongside me in the field. Unfortunately, my rough draft deadline for class occurs before the tapes will arrive. Even then, I now realize that the translation of ideas is often more tricky than translation itself.

I’ve never wished more than now that I’d taken five years of Spanish instead of Latin. Then I might even have a good job lined up.

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The difference between NGOs and journalists

The balance between a journalist and a NGO is tricky. A journalist must always strive to be objective (though this is often not entirely possible) and definitely independent.

We had this discussion in class last night reflecting on our time spent with Hope of Life in Guatemala. In staying with the organization, many of the townspeople thought our journalism group was missionaries too. That doesn’t seem very independent.

American readers know (most likely) nothing about the organization. What they will know is what we choose to put in our stories. And our stories (should be) from a third party point of view, like a good journalistic story should be.

Some NGOs are choosing to eliminate the middle man (journalist) and do the reporting on their own. Charlie Beckett, who often writes that journalism should involve the public more, noted in his blog that charities want people to see these international places in the same way that they do. I think it’s great that they want to get the word out.

But this isn’t journalism. Beckett questions this practice:

“This is bad for the media and the NGOs as in the long-term both will lose credibility. The news media needs to learn how to use public participation without cheating, while the charities need to learn some media literacy and ethics.”

In class, we came to the conclusion that while Hope of Life wanted us to report in the way they saw it, we wanted to do the stories that we found. Hope of Life is a wonderful organization that does great work, but many organizations do great work. I’m documenting what I saw–not what I want people to think.

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On top of the world: international journalism

In this time of global communication, it’s important for journalists to be able to work abroad.

I think that notion really struck me when I interviewed for a position at the journalism college’s job fair last week. One employer basically told me that the summer INTERNSHIP position would be open to me based on how my story for the FlyIns turns out.

The newspaper isn’t in a very large city, so I started to wonder why he would be so concerned with this work. Many papers now have an international section. With the Internet being a main provider of news, location isn’t an issue to what news is available. Also, our world is becoming so globalized that news from the other side of the planet could actually affect what’s happening at my doorstep.

I saw that the Suffolk University paper decided recently to add an international section, especially highlighting the work of students abroad. Do the students care more about this news than what happens on the quad? Maybe not, but the availability of the information should make a more informed student body.

Though I’m a little shaken up after my blog blunder, I still believe that my work on this story will be important for people to read. There are some great articles about the Latin American water crisis, but none that take that next step into a news feature that tells a more intimate story.

Employers want this news, journalists want to get it and, I would hope, people want to know what’s going on in this smaller, globalized world. Thus, my job is contingent on my ability to get it right.

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What did I just say? Journalists trying to break language barriers…

As mentioned before… I speak virtually no Spanish.

Aside from being a bumbling American in a foreign country, I (and many other journalists) am expected to do the same caliber of work no matter where I am. So how can a journalist get close to a subject that doesn’t even speak the same language?

Of course we’ll have translators on the trip, but that brings up some concerns. The translator is speaking the language of my source. I could easily be made into a bump on the log while they converse. Or worse- my translator could be feeding me quotes interpreted in his/her own way.

A New York Times reader questioned the paper a while back about how its reporters in Iraq handled working with translators.

The foreign desk editor, Andrea Kannapell, responded with some of the journalists’ methods, such as:

1) Explaining to translators that they must stop frequently and explain what the subject is saying

2) Develop a good relationship with the translator

3) Ask questions twice to double check that the answers are the same

The reader also asked about the accuracy or even ethics of publishing a non-English speaker’s words in quotes, which given the common differences in translation, I definitely question this practice as well.

Naturally, language isn’t everything when composing a story. Body language and actions are the universal language.

Just in case-I’m also preparing myself in a crash course of Latino hand gestures before I tell someone to screw themselves when I meant everything’s A-OK!

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