A reflection on local journalism

Sitting at my desk, hammering out words on Africa, it is easy to feel a bit like a fraud.

When I lived in Sudan, rarely a day would go by when I wouldn’t find myself chortling at some daft article or other about the country, usually written by correspondents in Washington or London (and sometimes by people who had never even set foot within the country).

I ranted and raved about such mediocre reporting, and got frustrated when editors in London or Washington would change my own copy to fit with what they thought they understood about the country.

Now, having spent almost a year-and-a-half writing about African affairs from my comfortable base in The Hague, I’m wondering whether I may have also fallen into the same trap.

The other week, I participated in a panel discussion about reporting in conflict situations. I must admit that I was a little nervous about giving my own presentation, since I have never been embedded with military units in Iraq or Afghanistan or stood jotting down notes as bombs all around me were going off.

But a colleague of mine had an idea – that I should not focus so much on the reporting that I had done, but on the reporting our correspondents in the field do. This was perfect, and leant itself to the pithy title “Local reporting: when the story is your life.”

The presentation seemed to go down well. What I didn’t realise, until all presentations had finished and we were starting to field questions from the floor, was that just about all journalists were arguing the same thing: local journalism matters.

Ben Anderson, a television reporter, who appeared via Internet link-up from a studio in London, put the sentiments best: “Local journalists are starting to take over from foreign correspondents that are posted abroad, and that is surely a good thing.”

My argument was slightly more nuanced, and I found myself resisting the temptation to write my own epitaph.

Like Anderson, I firmly believe that more use should be made of local journalists, and this is something that IWPR really excels at.

As Anderson rightly pointed out, almost every decent foreign correspondent will have his own network of local fixers, which help set up meetings and generally navigate the tedious bureaucracy of an alien country. The only difference is that these fixers, which are of crucial importance to a story, are rarely acknowledged. They take their pay cheque, but rarely get a by-line.

There is a temptation among foreign hacks to resist the encroaching importance of local journalism. I suppose that I am one of them, because foreign reporting is my life, and I think it will be some time before local journalists become of paramount importance to mainstream media outlets.

This said, though, there is a great deal to be said for local journalists working hand-in-hand with foreign correspondents to produce hard-hitting reports that really get to the heart of the issue. It would just be nice to see these local journalists getting more recognition than they do currently.

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