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Thursday
Feb102011

Why the Foreign Correspondent Will Resurface

How many times have you heard that the foreign correspondent is dead? But what's happening in Egypt shows that won't happen.

You must have heard by now that Al Jazeera English's web traffic increased something like 2500% in a day because they were (affectively) the only ones on the ground in Egypt.

So, nobody has foreign bureaus anymore. Have you noticed that everytime the BBC, CNN, MSNBC wish to cover a breaking crisis they parachute in journalists? Each network has one to three megastars that go and report on breaking news.   The BBC tv news these days--as far as I can tell-- has one guy in the US, for like the whole fucking country! Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour for CNN, Richard Engel for MSNBC. I don't believe for a minute that these people really and truly know what' s going on, nor can they offer the most insightful commentary about what's going on in a place. 

Last night I went a Future Human event where the topic was can "data journalism" save journalism?  Future Human's intro man argued that what's going on in journalism now isn't new but a return to what it had been before the age of consumption, Edward Bernays, and the press release. Intro man talked about an old journo named Lipman who said that journalists have an important role to play between policy elites and the public. My friend and sometime mentor Martin Belam says that data vis isn't really anything new, journalists have been doing it since the dawn of the Manchester Guardian at least.  It's the churnalism that's gotten in the way. 

Yes, at some point it was a journalists job to report the facts, but that's not what a journalist really does.  The journalist's job is to sift, aggregate, and contextualise disperate facts using their experience, expertise, and body of knowledge about a situation. At some point it became mostly about the facts or what somebody has just done: the age of the press release. 

I feel like there's a lot of sentiment that social media is this brand new thing that has killed journalism, when that's not it at all. It's just changed the sifting and the aggregating bits.  Yes, now a journalist can sit in their office and get facts from the ground in Egypt via Twitter and Facebook, but those facts are best interpreted in the hands of people who have recent experience in Egypt. 

Many journalists write books after several years on a beat-- journalists straddle the line between experts and Lipman's middle men. 

One of the things that social media allows us to do is to listen to the buzz on a particular bit of reporting. I cannot tell you how many times I've read a book or seen a special from 60 minutes or the BBC where the reporter has parachuted into a situation to expose some unknown (to the Western world) social problem and then watched the Tweets from tweeple who live in those countries everyday. Usually the parachuted documentarian has gotten it wrong. 

This is the challenge and opportunity with social media: we can get facts and even (in interactive documentary form) take testimony from people involved, but unless the storyteller-journalist has done due diligence in that situation the outcome will be inaccurate concocted drivel.

No computer can stand in for a human sifting information. Communication is more than just characters and blog entries, it's fundamentally and primarily about tone of voice and body language. For that, you need a foreign correspondent.

Last night one of the presenters was an editor from the Telegraph and he said that he believes that data journalism will save journalism but only for three things: human intelligence, the ability to harness collective intelligence, and the ability to use computer algorithms to human advantage.

Earlier this year Mashable wrote a post: 10 Predictions for Journalism in 2011. Number six is the death is the foreign correspondent, "we’ll see more news organizations relying heavily on stringers and, in many cases, social content uploaded by the citizenry." In the short term, I don't disagree. But in the long run, the ability to provide even original content, original data will depend upon having someone on the ground.

Here's why:

Social media and mobile technology will make it possible, even easy for your average journalist with a minimum of programming skills to collect and process information. If you're relying on data collected from the internet, then everybody has access to the same data. For truly original content, you need people on the ground who are, because they are in the situation, able to think new thoughts.

Our interpretation of any information placed before us is highly contextualised not only to our identities but to our cultures as well. Ethan Zuckerman recently gave a TED talk about "bridge people" people that straddle several cultures and act as middle men between their identity communities to translate and to show the way. This requires, inherently, colocation. These bridge people will be the future foreign correspondents.

The foreign correspondent will rise again, mark my words.

P.S. if any media outlets would like to cooperate to sponsor my journalists credentials for any country in the middle east or China or Indonesia, please do get touch ;)

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