Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Parachuting for news

Woolly Days has finished reading the book Journalism: Investigation and Research (edited by Stephen Tanner). It is a compulsory text for a course in News and Information Gathering and a worthwhile read for its own sake. The book is a collection of examples of Australian investigative journalism from many of its best practitioners. It provides a practical and theoretical framework for investigative journalism. Tom O’Byrne was the ABC China correspondent in 2001 and he contributed a piece called “parachuting for news” for the anthology. It is a fascinating insider’s guide to the frenzied art of foreign correspondence.

The Poynter Institute for journalism defines parachute journalism as the practice of producing distorted news reports by journalists inexperienced in the culture they are writing about. Often this is not the fault of the journalist. Deadline pressures and intense media competition have often made for stereotypical or distorted accounts of places and the people who live there. Poynter argues that although media have made great efforts to eliminate racial, ethnic, and gender bias from their coverage, a less apparent bias persists: Geographic bias.

At the start of his essay Tom O’Byrne hints at the problems foreign journalists face in their occupation. He laments the fact that there is no handbook for journalists called “Covering a conflict: what to take and what to leave at home”. ABC foreign reporters have a lot of ground to cover. They appear in ABC TV news bulletins and other TV programs such as Lateline, Foreign Correspondent and The 7.30 Report. They are also a regular part of internet news bulletins around the clock at ABC News Online and on ABC national and local radio networks, on the continuous news station NewsRadio and the ABC's international broadcaster Radio Australia.

O’Byrne was in Beijing in 2001 when the 9/11 attack occurred. Immediately, he was on the phone reporting on the Chinese reaction to the attack throughout the night that followed. After 12 hours he was finally getting some sleep when the head of ABC international news, Bronwyn Kiely, rang. He and his crew were to get visas and leave for Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, on the first available flight. Their brief was to report on Pakistan’s emerging role in the story. Across the world, the calls were repeated. The Moscow correspondent flew to Jerusalem. The Bangkok contact flew to Tajikistan. The Washington correspondent had to immediately cut short his Venezuela trip and head home. Other organisations were also on the march. It wasn’t easy with US airspace closed. The BBC chartered a commercial passenger jet filled with people and equipment and flew it to Montreal where trucks were waiting to cart the lot across the border and down to New York.

O’Byrne wasted no time in setting up a bureau at his Islamabad hotel. He got set up with a 24 hour driver, a translator, access to fax machines, and four local mobile phones with $2,000 credit. On field trips the ABC shared costs and translation services with two non-competition media, the Baltimore Sun and US National Public Radio. The ABC made big use of contacts in Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta and Kabul they used in previous stories. A local telephone book was a saleable commodity and books on Afghanistan history and the Taliban were also hot property among the media contingent.

The language barrier often played havoc. O’Byrne remembers one tense media conference at the Taliban embassy in Islamabad. Reporters stared in disbelief when the Taliban spokesman declared the attacks on America was ‘the fault of Iran’. Journalists whispered to each other whether they’d heard it correctly. Finally one asked “can you clarify why you might be blaming Iran?” His question caused consternation on the Taliban side and much whispers on that side of the table. Finally it emerged that the translation had got it wrong. 9/11 wasn’t the sensational ‘fault of Iran’ but the more predictable ‘fault of their own’.

O’Byrne would be a very busy man in the last few months of 2001. There was no room for adjusting to local time zones and his deadlines for the Australian morning news and current affairs radio shows were 1am and 3am. There were more deadlines at 7am and midday. He filed up to ten stories a day and caught sleep where he could in patches for 36 days straight. Getting the story out could be problematic. They had to deal with potential Pakistani censorship of satellite feeds and find one of the few satellite feed points. The only one in Islamabad was the rooftop of the Marriott Hotel which charged each of its dozen ‘live shot’ clients US$1,500 for the privilege. But money was no object; networks across the world were spending big after 9/11. The BBC bill for the first three months topped $30 million.

When O’Byrne did his field trips into Afghanistan, he took two satellite phone units, a camera and a video transmission unit. They could send vision back to Australia in twenty minutes. For radio broadcasts, O’Byrne used computer laptop-editing software to connect to the Internet to transfer compressed story packages back to Sydney. They also carried ISDN codec equipment that allowed them to use ISDN telephone lines to produce studio-quality sound from the field. They had specially adapted ‘lip mikes' designed to be used in a breeze and still produce sound with minimum distortion because it is held close to the upper lip.

Reporting is sometimes a dangerous business. O’Byrne attended a political rally at Quetta cricket ground where he interviewed five angry Muslim men who were decrying US foreign policy on Islamic causes. Suddenly they were surrounded by 200 men. No-one dared touch the reporters but it was an awkward situation which wasn’t resolved until local police waded in with sticks to clear a path out. Several journalists were killed in the early days of the war. When in the field, O’Byrne and his crew wore flak jackets and travelled in large convoys often with armed escorts.

O’Byrne does a fine job of exposing that the life of a foreign correspondent is often far from glamorous and exciting. But its clear that despite all the hassles, he was totally absorbed in the experience of being at the epicentre of the biggest story of the world.

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