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Five tips for journalists reporting abroad

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Journalists may dream of fellowships abroad to escape the mundane and cover something new, but the most successful reporting trips grow out of beats reporters already know well.

That's just one of the lessons that journalists Phillip Martin of NPR member station WGBH in Boston and Cindy Carcamo of the Los Angeles Times learned on the International Reporting Fellowship Program for Minority Journalists.

In the latest IJNet Live chat, Martin and Carcamo shared their advice on preparing for a fellowship abroad, staying safe overseas, finding fixers and more. Here are a few of their tips:

1. Stick with a topic you know.

Don't apply for a fellowship abroad because it's an excuse to travel to an exotic locale. You need a solid topic that you understand, or one that you covered in the past which warrants further exploration. Focus on the "lingering questions that need answers," Martin said.

Carcamo stuck with her immigration beat at The Orange County Register for her series on smuggling routes in the Pacific. "I took a step back and thought about what story really needed an in-depth look, something new and trending," she said. "I think it’s important to really know your beat, take a step back and think what may be happening that has international ties or implications."

2. Keep your proposal focused, but stay flexible.

No matter how much research you do on your topic, chances are your story will shift once you're on the ground. "Write a detailed proposal. Stick to it as far as the umbrella theme is concerned and know that the details on the ground --as you mapped it out--will change," Martin said.

3. Lay low to stay safe.

As many reporting assignments are investigative in nature, watching your back is key. "I was careful to keep up with the news in the region I would be going to. I also didn’t tell many people exactly where I would be going to and left my arrival date a bit vague," Carcamo said.

For his series on human trafficking in Southeast Asia, Martin had to deal with a topic that's often "horribly sensationalized."

"I felt it was as important to speak with the rescuers as [with] the rescued. I had planned from the beginning not to put myself in harm's way by posing as a customer," he said. "One of my contacts...warned me that these guys I would be reporting on from a distance were very dangerous and I took that to heart. Common sense of course is the final arbiter."

4. Find translators/fixers who know the local scene, and be prepared to pay.

Establishing contacts in your destination country is vital, as they can offer access to sources you wouldn't find as an outsider, but there usually is a fee involved.

"One of the hardest aspects of my project was trying to get in contact with the family of a Guatemalan woman who died. All I had was a name and age. My fixer in Guatemala really helped with this," Carcamo said. "Going rates vary from country to country. I would speak with journalists who are already in the country you are looking to visit and ask them about what the going rate may be for a fixer, driver or translator."

Martin expanded on what makes a good translator or fixer. "Not someone who just speaks English but someone who has interacted with English-speaking journalists or academics and who knows nuance and American idioms...someone who is proactive; able to anticipate certain questions borne out of local experiences and assumptions."

5. Leave your biases behind.

Be aware of "cultural nuances and moderate your own biases and experiences—what is called the framework of assumption," Martin says. "Being careful not to filter everything through an American paradigm. Know your surroundings, beginning with studying maps (local, provincial and national) where rivers cross, topography and customs."

Photo CC-licensed on Flickr via wesbolton.

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