Foreign correspondents, media professionals and international journalism educators came together across four time zones today for Macleay College’s inaugural International Reporting Conference.
Speakers covered topics from reporting on Putin’s Russia to the Ebola crisis in Africa and the rise of Islamic State in Syria.
Keynote speakers were Edward Lucas, an academic, think-tank member and journalist from London, Peter Charley, executive producer of Al Jazeera news network in Washington DC and Professor Randall Smith of the Missouri School of Journalism. Other guests and panelists included former Sydney Morning Herald editor Eric Beecher, ABC head of news content Gaven Morris and ABC News Radio’s Tracey Holmes.
Macleay College’s head of journalism Stephen Davis said the aim of the conference was to “pose questions” about the future of international reporting.
“As journalists and educators and foreign correspondents we understand we need to do better… we need to learn how to tell our story better,” he told attendees in Sydney and Melbourne, and many tuning in live from the UK, US, Bangladesh and Australia.
Gaven Morris said the essence of international reporting was “seeing something with your eyes and telling people something they didn’t know, and providing the context around that”.
He said while there was value in overseas bureaus with banks of knowledge audiences could trust, “the role of the journalist as an all-seeing eye is starting to dissolve”, with the need to involve audiences in the storytelling.
Peter Charley said it was still vital for today’s journalists to “go where the story is”.
“We should be travelling as far and wide as possible to get to the truth and report it as accurately as possible,” he said.
However Charley acknowledged some places, like Syria, were too dangerous for foreign correspondents, with 81 journalists losing their lives in the war zone in the past four years.
Eric Beecher said the business models in the commercial sphere were all collapsing: “They used to have battalions of foreign correspondents [in the US]; now they have almost none.”
Beecher said consumers were instead getting international news from a range of independent media.
“We now have access to journalism from around the world in a way we never did before. [But] if we just rely on the government (the ABC) or philanthropy (The Guardian) I just don’t think they can do it at scale,” he said.
Irish freelancer Kathryn Hayes said there was an increasing reliance on freelance journalists in war zones due to costs and safety issues, with numbers of mainstream media foreign correspondentsemployed in the US falling by almost a quarter, from 307 to 234, between 2003 and 2011.
Ms Hayes, who teaches in the Journalism Programme at the University of Limerick, said: “We take journalists, especially freelance journalists for granted. They risk their lives and often have no resources or protection.”
Hayes said news organisations taking advantage of freelancers had to “take responsibility” for how the news was produced. “News organisations owe it to [freelancers] to make sure they come home safely.”
Former Egypt stringer Steven Viney advised anyone thinking of reporting from a danger zone to do their research, make local connections, get insurance and to “cover the story, don’t become the story“.
Walkley and Logie award-winning producer Stuart Goodman advised freelancers against going it alone: “If you don’t have an outlet for your story don’t go”.
“If Peter Greste hadn’t been with Al Jazeera he’d still be in jail,” he said.
Documentary film-maker Dr Ian Lang said the best stories “cracking it” in Australia were those filmed in journalists’ own backyards.
“You really do need to know something about what you’re talking about. Go out to Parramatta and find out who these kids are that are volunteering and watching these ISIS videos,” he recommended.
Goodman also encouraged journalists to stay local: “Look under your nose; there’s your yarn”.
Channel Seven reporter Cath Turner, who recently returned from Vanuatu, agreed it was valuable for a journalist to report on issues at home, rather than be “parachuted in” to a region where they had no knowledge.
“You can’t empathise, you can’t emote, if you have no idea what it is like for them to be persecuted for their religion. I wouldn’t expect their reporting to have any depth,” she said.
But Fulbright scholar in digital communications and Macleay lecturer Andrew Robinson believed the difference between East and West was actually “breaking down” and becoming less obvious. He suggested Australian journalists were best placed to report on Australia for other countries, such as India, rather than the other way around.
There was also a plea for more consistent and informed Western reporting of events in developing countries.
Professor Randall Smith criticised “episodic” reporting of events in Africa for failing to create understanding. The US approach, he said, had usually been a lack of interest stemming from a dismissive mindset born of the attitude “What can Africa do for us?”
West Africa’s Ebola crisis, he noted, had gone largely unreported in the US until a citizen contracted the disease after returning from Africa – and then the response was, essentially, panic. Ignorance resulted in people visiting countries thousands of miles from the Ebola zone being urged to stay safe.
Edward Lucas, a senior editor of The Economist speaking in his personal capacity, told of challenges faced by Western media when “pushing back against Russian propaganda”.
He suggested imposing regulations on people who were part of the “Kremlin propaganda machine” and resisting calls for “lazy balance by reporting both sides” of the story.
“I think it’s our duty as journalists and editors to work out what we think … test it against facts and don’t take other versions as valid versions,” Lucas said.
“There is a kind of paralysing fairness… fairness is important; [but] truth is more important.”
Tracey Holmes, who teaches international reporting at Macleay College, said people would always seek news from sources they trusted, such as the New York Times, Al Jazeera and the ABC.
“The audience is not stupid. They can distinguish between what’s a bit of rubbish and something that is taking them somewhere else,” she said. “People do recognise quality when they see it and there is a way to market this.”
David Munk of The Guardian said journalists had to be “sellers of their brand”.
“Journalists have to realise they have to be more than people who report on one story and come home,” he said.
US web journalist Robert Hernandez, who teaches at the University of Southern California Annenberg’s journalism school, said modern reporters had to be multiskilled and using new technologies.
“We need to figure out how to adapt these tools… to do our job, which is to inform our community with accurate and ethical information,” he said. Journalists had to adopt and hijack new technologies, such Oculus Rift, Google Glass, drones and smart watches.
“I want us as journalists to not be reactive… but proactive to technology. This is how society is emerging and if we want to be relevant we’ve got to get on it.
“But technology is not the end goal. The end goal for us is learning technology so we can do journalism. All this stuff will go away; Twitter will go away, Facebook will go away but journalism will always be there.”
Other panelists included Macleay lecturers Mark Mulligan and Ronan Healy and a Melbourne doctoral student, Kathleen Buchanan. – Alison Cheung
Photos by Daniel Walker.