Six tips for journalists reporting abroad

byMargaret Looney
Nov 8, 2011 in Specialized Topics


For journalists just getting started as foreign correspondents, David Francis has a few tips to offer on tactful reporting, learning from the locals and pitching freelance stories.

Francis is a freelance journalist whose reporting brought him to Afghanistan, Mexico and Germany as a Burns Fellow. He recently reported from Nigeria as an International Reporting Project Fellow publishing articles in the Christian Science Monitor, World Politics Review and The Fiscal Times.

Francis shared tips with IJNet that beginning foreign correspondents should keep in mind:

  1. Be aware of how you’re perceived and respect local traditions and customs. In many places, the simple presence of a reporter draws attention. In Africa, for example, white reporters stand out simply because of the color of their skin. In these situations, it’s best not to draw unnecessary attention. Wear clothing appropriate for the area and respect local customs. If you don’t speak the local language, allow translators or fixers to make initial introductions to interview subjects. Try to blend in as much as possible, even in situations where blending in is close to impossible.

  2. If freelancing, keep pitches short and to the point. Always include your lede, why the story is important in an international news context and why an audience back home should or would care about it. Magazine pitches can be longer. Think of the initial email to a magazine editor as the beginning of a conversation. Daily news editors just want to know what you can do for them and how quickly and accurately you can do it. I avoid writing things on spec, simply because it takes up a lot of time and could yield nothing.

  3. Have an escape plan and proceed with caution. An escape plan is always necessary when reporting from an unfamiliar or dangerous place. Talk to your fixers about how to leave an area if something were to go wrong. If you get the sense that something bad is imminent, trust your instincts and leave. Always err on the side of caution. Don’t expect the worst, but be ready for it. A situation is never dangerous until it is; things can go from normal to chaos in a split second.

  4. Do your research. Talk to other reporters with experience in country before leaving. Make sure you have access to enough money (whether to carry cash or if there's ATM access), are aware of security concerns and have a rough schedule of where you’re going and whom you plan on speaking to. Let people know this plan before you leave and update them during your trip. Network before you get there. Touch base with local reporters, who are typically more than willing to help a new journalist in town. Contact bloggers and people who are active in social media. Buy a local cell phone as soon as you arrive. Try to get as connected to the local media scene as possible.

  5. Leave the ivory tower. Academics and experts at think tanks are great sources of background information and are typically more than willing to speak to foreign media. For some stories, politicians or bankers are the only people you’ll need to talk to. But don’t ignore the man on the street. The opinions of decision makers are important, but the opinion of the people these decisions impact is equally compelling.

  6. Be flexible. The best-laid plans inevitably fall apart on foreign reporting trips. Stories that seemed like great ideas at home are often less compelling once in the country. When this happens, don’t despair and follow the news wherever it takes you. Always think about how your audience at home can relate to events you’re witnessing. It’s often the unplanned stories that turn out to be the best.

To read more of his reporting, click here.