Five questions for Patrick Brown
Patrick Brown is this year's Canadian
Journalism Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award winner. After being selected
from more than 50 nominations, he'll receive the award at tonight's 14th annual
awards gala. We caught up with the former CBC foreign correspondent to talk
about stories in a quick-hit news environment, what role long-form broadcasting
will play in the future, and, also, the role of foreign correspondents in a
J-Source: You're now an independent documentary producer, based on Beijing. Can you tell us what you're currently working on?
Patrick Brown: I have just finished an hour-long film called We Shall Gather at the River. The approach is quite different from my usual news reporting and public affairs documentaries. It’s an intimate portrait of a Christian congregation in a village in China’s Yunnan province as they build a new church. The story is told by one of the villagers, rather than by me. One of the glories of the film, if I may put it that way, is the extraordinary music. The villagers sing traditional Christian hymns, like Rock of Ages and Onward Christian Soldiers in beautiful four-part harmony. I like the film a great deal, and hope others will too.
J-Source: Plenty has changed in the past 5, 10, 15 years, in terms of news environment, culture, technology, etc. What can you do now that you couldn't do during your primary working years as a foreign correspondent?
PB: People are doing and thinking much the same things today as they did when I started reporting in the 1970s. The kinds of stories we should be telling probably haven’t changed much since Paul Reuter started sending reports by carrier pigeon. The big difference in news coverage is that we can get to where things are happening much more quickly, and send our stories to Canada immediately. As far as documentaries go, I think the development of light-weight equipment and digital editing has been enormously important. We are now much more mobile and relatively unobtrusive, which can make the process of telling stories with images at more fluid and spontaneous and less articificial.
J-Source: Is there any past story you wish you could have reported on in today's news/technological environment? Or, vice versa, any story that just wouldn't work now?
PB: It would have been wonderful to have cell-phones, computers, GPS, protective vests and all the rest of the tools when I was covering conflicts in the Middle East in the early 1980s. I also recall a trip I made with cameraman Paul Belanger into Cambodia in 1987 during Vietnam’s occupation. It involved two weeks of walking behind the Vietnamese lines, and was quite arduous, since everything had to be carried. We had one of the very first small-scale video cameras called a Sony newsmaker and we had to be very sparing in taking pictures so as to ration the handful of batteries we could carry. The resulting images were quite dramatic, but the technical quality was by today’s standards unuseable. As for what would not work now, I think TV networks have become so obsessed with instant access to reporters on the ground that most of them now spend much of the time standing on hotel rooves telling anchors what they have just seen on the internet. The idea of taking a camera and walking for weeks to capture a story seems absurdly old-fashioned to the news managers who make network decisions today.
J-Source: With so many quick-hit story formats rising in popularity, what role do you think the documentary, or longer broadcast news story, will play in the future?
PB: An exponential increase in the amount of information does not automatically
being a similar increase in understanding. The fact that hundreds of channels and thousands of websites are all able hyperactively to cover the same few events and celebrities does not reduce the need for thoughtful and accurate programs. Not every story can be told in a minute and thirty seconds. Our attention spans are dwindling, but I think there is still an audience for interesting and beautiful films even if they do not include pictures car chases, explosions, and Lindsay Lohan.
J-Source: Then, there's the question of those abroad using Twitter, and other social media, to report on what's happening on the ground. How is the role of foreign correspondents changing? Will they serve a different purpose for Canadians who want to know about the world, and what's happening in it?
PB: I embrace new technology with vigorous enthusiasm, so I hope I will not be judged a cranky old luddite, when I differ from the widely-held view that Twitter and Facebook have completely changed the business of, for example, making revolutions and reporting on them. I think it’s fine that we now have many more ways of telling our stories, and I think it’s splendid that local actors can instantly reach the outside world with cellphone images and posts on these new media. However, the craft of reporting involves much more than the method of delivering information and pictures from one place to another. In a world ever more saturated with undifferentiated information, there is a greater need than ever for context, explanation, judgement, and balance.