Watching Trevor Noah at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner this weekend was a good chance to laugh and a sobering moment to reflect.
Given the way it was ricocheting around social media over the weekend, I have to assume you already caught at least a clip of “The Daily Show” host roasting President Biden, as is the tradition, and relentlessly teasing all those White House correspondents. If you missed it, check it out here for the laughs, and just be sure you watch to the end and catch Noah’s more serious and powerful closing.
WATCH: Charlie Sennott of The GroundTruth Project joins MSNBC’s Morning Joe on World Press Freedom Day to discuss the importance of an independent free press.
In the end, he gets down to business and he encourages all of us in journalism to really think about the importance of a free press to our democracy, and challenges us not to take our responsibility for granted— that we have to be better at what we do as journalists. He asks us to think about journalists in Ukraine who have put their lives on the line to tell the story from the frontlines, and the journalists in Russia who also risked their lives to challenge the tyranny of Russia’s skilled attempts to control the message and thwart the truth through intimidation and fear.
As part of this much-needed reflection on what we do in our craft, I am going to start with a confession of my own about a practice many of us have done through the biggest stories in the world that truly needs to be rethought: parachute journalism.
I have parachuted into big stories for much of my life in conflict zones and natural disasters and datelines that range from Afghanistan to Ukraine; from the Troubles in Northern Ireland to corruption in the Vatican and from the devastation of climate change in the Arctic to the long, hot summer of the LA riots. Along the way, there were literally hundreds of datelines since I started in this field in the 1980s.
That’s right. I am really that old now. I’ve been reporting across five decades and have the gray hair to prove it. I’ve lost friends in the field. I’ve made friends for life. My wife and I started our family abroad while on assignment as the Middle East bureau chief for my alma mater The Boston Globe. Journalism – globally and locally – means the world to me, and that passion is what propelled me to launch The GroundTruth Project nearly ten years ago and to join forces with my co-founder Steve Waldman to launch Report for America five years ago.
My professional journey has brought me to a realization that the model of parachuting in to cover big, global stories is inherently flawed. I am mindful that I am saying this after just returning from Ukraine, where I had the opportunity to travel with a humanitarian aid organization out to the frontlines in the East. But on this trip, I was focusing on a fact-finding tour, meeting with Ukrainian news organizations that desperately need support. I wanted to see if we can help them as they provide local news across their country, which has never been more urgent for the brave citizens now in the throes of war.
Today, on World Press Freedom Day, I’m calling on the media industry to do better, for the communities we report on and the communities we report for. It’s time for the foreign correspondent model, which too often takes the form of parachute journalism, to purposefully make way for local reporting by local journalists.
I don’t make this call lightly, and it’s not because of the trauma, the pain or the risks this international journalism involves, for as long as we are working to improve our democracy here or elsewhere, journalists will continue to risk their lives for the truth.
Last year, my colleague Kevin Grant took to Nieman Lab’s Journalism Predictions to explain, “But there has always been a better way: local reporting done by people living in or near the community, bringing knowledge, relationships, and nuance to journalism that “checks out” with the people it’s about.”
The foreign correspondence model creates systemic inequalities between journalists from typically Western countries and journalists from the Global South, who are referred to as “fixers.” A good fixer, though, is a good journalist, who has to help an “out-of-town” journalist tell the story they want and often in riskier work conditions and for second-rate pay.
Foreign correspondents write with their newspaper’s home audience in mind, but what about the local community where the story is unraveling?
“When we hire reporters who speak local languages and deeply understand the nuanced perspectives of the communities they cover, sources recognize themselves in stories,” wrote Laxmi Parthasarathy, chief operating officer of Global Press Journal.
That’s why GroundTruth launched Report for the World last year, to support local journalists in countries around the world to report on under-covered topics, modeled after the best lessons learned from Report for America. These journalists serve their communities with essential, public service journalism. Over the past year and a half, their beats have unsurprisingly focused on climate change, the pandemic and health and Indigenous people’s rights in India, Nigeria and Brazil.
Other new and exciting models for journalism initiatives have cropped up around the world. Global Press, for example, builds independent news bureaus, staffed by local, women reporters, in some of the world’s least-covered places, such as Mongolia, Haiti and Zimbabwe.
As Ben and Justin Smith have shared some sparse details about their new, for-profit media start-up Semafor, they seem to understand what’s at stake here too: “The era of the foreign correspondent is over.” I’m excited to see what alternative, local-global model they unveil. I tried to start a for-profit model to change the way we think of international reporting called GlobalPost, but we did not have a business model that could sustain it. So I know first-hand just how hard what Smith and Smith are trying to do. Spoiler alert: It won’t be easy.
And this isn’t a problem limited to international journalism alone. Here in the U.S., as local newsrooms have been gutted by hedge funds and lack of revenue, coastal journalists have parachuted into the heartland when deemed necessary, to report on whatever newsworthy event is happening, and get out.
In Appalachia, for example, a region that spans from Pennsylvania to Alabama, local news organization 100 Days in Appalachia has brought together an Appalachian Advisors Network, a group of 14 Appalachian community leaders who will help outside journalists connect with a diverse range of local expertise.
For the future of journalism to be bright, we need to make way for new innovative models that put local communities first, reporting for them, instead of on them. We need to do that here in America and around the world. Our democracies can only be as strong as our communities, and local journalism lies at the foundation of an engaged community and a functioning democracy. This World Press Freedom Day, let’s make sure the journalism we celebrate is worthy both here in the United States and in every corner of the world.