Maria Assaf listens in as four CBC foreign correspondents demystify the challenges of foreign reporting. Anna-Maria Tremonti, Adrienne Arsenault, Peter Armstong, and cameraman Mike Heenan talk straight at the network's recent open house panel about reporting in war zones and foreign countries where nothing, it sometimes seems, is ever easy.

Maria Assaf listens in as four CBC foreign correspondents demystify the challenges of foreign reporting. Anna-Maria Tremonti, Adrienne Arsenault, Peter Armstong, and cameraman Mike Heenan talk straight at the network's recent open house panel about reporting in war zones and foreign countries where nothing, it sometimes seems, is ever easy.

In a small village in Kenya people were celebrating. Kogelo, Barack Obama`s ancestral village dances, chants and cheers in unison for the first African American president of the United States.

On days like that, Peter Armstrong, a former CBC foreign correspondent, might be running along unpaved roads with a memory stick in hand, searching for an internet signal. The eyes and ears of the world set upon that story. With the speed of social media, he would do anything in his power to file the piece in record time, to unravel its different layers and show Canadians a bigger picture than Twitter updates can tell.

Many people think foreign correspondents have a glamorous yet dangerous job.

Although the latter is often true for the journalists at a recent CBC panel on the challenges of foreign reporting, each considers their job far from glamorous. Indeed, during the forum on Oct. 1, all four one-time overseas reporters did their best to demystify their jobs.

“For the first year or two it can feel glamorous. You ride airplanes and visit different places. Sometimes you can go to really poor places but stay in nice resorts,” said photographer and cameraman Mike Heenan. “But you’re not really enjoying your stay. You’re really busy. You’re up at 4 a.m. to go shooting and come back at 9 p.m. to edit your work.”

Finding washrooms and drinking water in conflict zones is another issue all of the reporters at the forum know well.

Along with these sanitary nuisances, foreign correspondents sometimes land in countries they have never visited, where people speak a language they don’t know, and where they must find sources in the middle of an ongoing chaos. With some international bureaus managing more than 20 languages, it is a titanic task for a reporter to speak all of them fluently.

This is when “fixers” come into play. Many journalists call them “the unsung heroes of our business,” and not without reason.    

On the ground “you are trying to get the wider picture,” said broadcast journalist, Tremonti, who has been based in Berlin, London, Jerusalem and Washington. “You need to find someone who already has a perspective on that country. This is important if you want to be true to the country.”

Fixers can be local journalists, university students or simply a guy you met in the parking lot who meets the requirements, said broadcast journalist Adrienne Arsenault.

Foreign correspondents rely on fixers for anything from finding food to getting around in conflict zones without getting killed. They often become their life saviours and long-time friends.

“When you leave a country it’s very hard to leave the fixers and drivers behind. We will be home tomorrow but they will stay in the danger,” said Arsenault, who has been a correspondent in London and Jerusalem.

Even after returning home, most overseas reporters feel a constant urge to return to certain conflict zones and countries they feel need to be covered.

If Tremonti had to choose anywhere to go today she would land in Libya.

Journalists on the panel are constantly pitching ideas in CBC and advocating to be sent to cover stories they think matter. They all agreed that if they were not allowed to be part of these decisions, they would not work there.
 
Carole MacNeil, forum moderator and host of CBC News Now, said stories are chosen if they have a “big impact, big casualties, currency, high interest or include a high profile person.”

But the angle lies on the reporter. “How a story unfolds is each reporter’s responsibility,” said Tremonti.

Although journalists are expected to cover stories and leave, they often become emotionally influenced by the events they take part in.

MacNeil quoted Raymond Saint-Pierre, former Radio Canada foreign correspondent who has reported from war zones in Somalia, Rwanda, and former Yugoslavia, who said: “People with big hearts, in other words, may not make the best candidates for the job of war correspondent." This stirred emotions within the panel.

The reporters disagreed. “You wouldn’t be able to do this job without care and empathy,” said Peter Armstrong, former CBC Jerusalem correspondent. “This makes the reporting better.”

Arsenault was more direct. “If you don’t have a heart, get out,” she repeated several times.

Tremonti said it’s a fine line to walk. “Being fair sometimes includes showing what’s hurting the most [in a war zone],” she said. “No story is a cold story. There is a heart-beat in every story. Every story will always affect someone.”  

When a young boy stood up to ask the reporters how much writing they do abroad Arsenault concluded: “We do lots of scribbling. It’s a way to take all the stuff we have seen and smooth it out a little bit. It’s a job as it is a therapy.”

Most foreign correspondents say it’s an honour and a privilege to be able to expose stories that would otherwise die in obscurity.

The panel agreed international bureaus are still important because they shed light and greater understanding to disasters and conflict zones to which the public does not have access.

“You never know how people [in some places] live until you have stood in line in a store to buy groceries with them,” said Tremonti.

News organizations cover stories in different ways, appealing to the audience of their particular countries.   
   
“A Canadian audience deserves seeing something different than a French or an American audience,” said Armstrong, a broadcast journalist. “A Dutch crew will cover things differently than CBC. Big things happen but you use little stories to help people [back home] understand.”

This forum was part of a series of events celebrating CBC’s 75 years of programming during Culture Days. It was held in Toronto’s Glen Gould Studio and recorded for a CBC radio show that will air on Thanksgiving Monday. 

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Maria Juliana Assaf is a native of Bucaramanga, Colombia. She moved to Toronto in September 2008 and is a journalism student at Ryerson University currently in her second year. She has travelled through Europe during the summer of 2011 and participated in TOL’s (Transitions Online) foreign correspondent training course in Prague.She is bilingual in Spanish and English and is now studying French.