From one wannabe to another

University of Western Ontario j-school student Alex Ballingall wants to be an international journalist. But how to do it in a fair, balanced and captivating way? Well, it’s going to be damn hard, he writes, but not impossible. From his position as an eager, young journo Alex offers some modest advice on being a good…

University of Western Ontario j-school student Alex Ballingall wants to be an international journalist. But how to do it in a fair, balanced and captivating way? Well, it’s going to be damn hard, he writes, but not impossible. From his position as an eager, young journo Alex offers some modest advice on being a good international reporter and shedding your preconceived assumptions — from one wannabe to another.

The more I learn about the world, the more I feel like a caricature of the quintessential Westerner. My ancestry is Scottish, mostly. My reading list doesn’t stray too far beyond the old stalwarts of the Western canon — I’ve got shelves full of Romantic poets, American novelists and political science textbooks.  I’ve never been east of Istanbul, and I identify strongly with the liberalism of thinkers like J.S. Mill.

But I’m also someone with a keen interest in the world outside the confines of this perspective. My dream is to be an international journalist, a reporter on the far-flung frontlines of global affairs.

And this poses a problem: I carry around my socially engrained assumptions like a backpack I can never take off. In a world as culturally rich, historically intricate and politically complex as ours, how can a kid like me — on the cusp of my release from J-school — figure out how to represent it all in a fair, balanced and captivating way?

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and I think I’ve come up with a rough answer: it’s going to be damn hard.

But it’s not impossible. And like most things that are worthwhile, being a thorough, balanced international reporter who writes intriguing and accurate stories surely requires a significant amount of time and effort. So, from my position as an eager, young journalist, I’d like to offer some modest advice on how to be a good international reporter — regardless of where you come from and what sort of preconceived and formulated assumptions you hold.

Piece of advice No.1: Get to know history
This might sound self-evident, but it’s still an important point to stress. The more you know about the history of the places you’re working in, the better informed your stories will be. You will have an increased ability to capture the intricate truths of the world. Although this is probably true for every beat in the field, I think it is particularly true when it comes to international reporting.

Say I’m sent to cover an election in Turkey, and all I know is that the ruling party’s chances of being re-elected are strong. Upon arrival in Ankara, I find out that the ruling party is the Justice and Development Party, a political group that identifies itself with an Islamist ideology.

Without an in-depth knowledge of Turkey’s history, or even that of the Islamist movement in the Middle East during the past few decades, I may carry my Western assumptions into this story and cling to the religious leanings of the leading party in my election coverage. I can imagine the headlines: Islamic politics lands on European doorsteps.

But Turkey has a long secular political history and this political party isn’t obstructing those traditions in the name of religion. So, if I can understand that the Justice and Development Party’s Islamism isn’t the most crucial aspect of their party platform, then I can focus on other issues in the country that are more relevant and pressing for the electorate — such as the possibility of integrating further with the European Union, or the country’s relationship with Israel, or the rights of its Kurdish minority.

Or maybe I’m sent to write a feature article about an impoverished community in a sub-Saharan African country. In this context, it is likely important to be aware of the legacy of colonialism in that part of the world. It is also valuable to know about the economic relationship between the Global North and the Global South and how it’s changed since the end of the Second World War.

Maybe the country you’re working in has been subjected to substantive austerity measures to meet the conditions contained in a loan package from the International Monetary Fund. Maybe its farmers can’t compete with the low prices of subsidized vegetables imported from places like Europe and Canada.

The more one knows of historical context and social dynamism in the places in which they’re reporting, the more informed and accurate their journalism will be. The more you know, the better your story ideas will be. You’ll be able to ask better questions of your interview subjects, and — perhaps most importantly — your reporting will provide a more accurate snapshot of the truth.

Piece of advice No. 2: Respect differences; be wary of “relativism”

As I’ve mentioned, the world is a complicated place, chock full of divergent opinions and perspectives of truth, justice, morality — even reality itself. As a born-and-bred Canadian, it’s sometimes easy to forget that many human societies have social conventions, institutions and whole ways of life that differ vastly from what I’ve experienced. Although I would argue that these differences should always be respected and acknowledged, an international reporter should be careful not to slide too far down the dizzying slope of cultural relativism.

What do I mean by cultural relativism? I mean the philosophical position that truth and reality are social constructions, and therefore a certain culture’s moral codes and social habits are no more legitimate than those of any other culture. I think this perspective is in many ways valid, since, as André Gide said, the colour of truth is grey.

However, I think there are certain aspects of life — but only a few — that don’t fall into this greyness, and a journalist should recognize them for what they are: universal truths.

One such aspect that pertains to the work of an international journalist is the universal applicability of basic human rights. As journalists, we’re trained to give a voice to every side of a story, to provide a picture of the various perspectives and interpretations of social issues. But sometimes, in order to provide a fair representation of reality, one side of a story becomes more legitimate than another, and therefore deserves more emphasis in our coverage.

Take, for example, the stoning of adulterers by religious fundamentalists. In August 2010, UK newspaper the Guardian reported that a couple “accused of eloping” was stoned to death by the Taliban in a northern region of Afghanistan. If a journalist is caught up in the philosophical assumptions of cultural relativism, they run the possibility of failing to capture the absurd cruelties of such a punishment.

But one might say that’s just a different social code being applied in a different society. Who are we to place judgment?

Well, I think an important role of a journalist is to delve through the ideological and philosophical layers of any given issue or story to access the human heart of the matter. And in situations like this, that aspect of the story is clear. Stoning someone for adultery is a horrendous act of cruelty. I think that is objectively true, and should be treated as such by the journalists reporting it.

Therefore, my second piece of advice to budding international journalists is to be respectful and aware of the rich cultural and social norms that exist around the world, but to do so in way that never relinquishes a basic sense of morality. To do otherwise is to obscure the truth.

Piece of advice No. 3: Be empathetic, be open

In his 1977 book Orientalism, Edward Said stresses the importance of empathy in one’s study of other cultures. If one could approach something they aren’t used to with an open mind that’s grounded in empathy, one will be able to more accurately understand it. One won’t fall prey to easy generalizations and stereotypes. Instead, she will more accurately understand the layers and complexities of reality.

I agree with Said, and I think his advice holds true when it comes to international journalism. If one simply approaches international reporting with the mindset of an outsider, one will likely produce reports that, at best, don’t delve beyond the obvious, and at worst, perpetuate misconceptions or stereotypes.

For example, a journalist “parachuting” into the Gaza Strip during the first Intifada might not fairly represent the grievances of protesting Palestinian youth if they are unable, or unwilling, to be open to understanding them. If however, they are ready to challenge their own preconceptions of Palestinian uprisings and resistance, they will likely come up with a better story based on frustrations with the peace process and other reasons behind the parallel surge of Islamism in the area.

A good journalist will always strive to empathize with others. By searching to identify with their thoughts, beliefs and social upbringing, a journalist will get a better understanding of their position, and thus be able to create more interesting and accurate journalism.

So, that’s my advice to other young journalists hoping to become international reporters: know as much historical context as possible, beware of sliding too far towards cultural relativism and always try to ground your journalism in openness and empathy.

I think this advice can help reporters provide a more accurate picture of the vast complexities of the world. As global relations become increasingly interrelated, a proper understanding and awareness of international events could be more vital than ever. To help contribute to public understanding of such issues is a worthy goal. And it’s a task that I will seek to take up as I trek on into the early years of my career as a journalist.

Alex Ballingall is a
recent graduate of the master of arts in journalism program at the University
of Western Ontario. He hails from Kamloops B.C. and aspires to be an
international journalist.