Is the image of parachute journalism being in free fall warranted?

When Clarissa Ward, CNN’s chief international correspondent, went to Myanmar on a tour of the country choreographed by the country’s military junta in April this year, she was criticized for playing into the hands of the leaders who had carried out a coup which plunged the country back into a military dictatorship just months earlier. Against the death and oppression in the country, critics feared that the trip was nothing more than a vanity project for CNN and Ward; or it was a chance for Myanmar’s regime to reinvent its image on the world stage.

Throughout the trip, Ward was shadowed by plainclothes regime agents, with dissidents being taken away just for talking to the journalists. To add fuel to the fire, the trip was not without financial benefit. Reuters reported that the junta paid US$2 million to a lobbyist who had arranged the trip. In her defense, Ward told her colleague Jake Tapper that “the military has its side of the story too.”

Others do not agree – Aye Min Thant, writing for New Naratif, called the trip a self-aggrandizing ‘misadventure’ that reeked of white saviourism.

Vice News reported that CNN did not cite or acknowledge the work of citizen journalists who covered the story on the ground. Instead, CNN opted to frame the story as an exclusive (they were not the only foreign outlet on that trip – the Southeast Asia Globe, based in Cambodia, was also part of the media contingent).

Yet CNN’s debacle is not the only instance of parachute journalism (foreign journalists sent to unfamiliar locations to report on stories) providing platforms for oppressive regimes, who may only let them in in the first place because of the potential to rewrite the narrative.

When the BBC went to Azerbaijan to question President Ilham Aliyev about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in late 2020, Aliyev quickly turned the interview on its head to question BBC correspondent Orla Guerin about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Western media bias against Azerbaijan.

As a result, the clips that went viral were those of Aliyev’s fiery response and not the interview about the conflict itself. The BBC interview that was supposed to question Azeri aggression ended up legitimizing Aliyev’s rule as he posited himself as a bastion of resistance against anti-western imperialism.

A difficult question comes up from these instances: Do foreign correspondents who parachute in do more harm than good?

Former foreign correspondent Glenn van Zutphen, whose career as a foreign correspondent spanned over 25 years with CNN International, CNBC and NHK, said that where the journalists parachute in from is important.

“You could be a Bangkok-based foreign correspondent or international journalist, and later called on to cover a story in Malaysia… That’s a little different than somebody parachuting into Malaysia from London, Rome, or Washington DC,” said van Zutphen.

Understanding the area where a journalist reports from is key to van Zutphen. When he moved to Japan, he learnt the language and had Japanese friends, while also trying his best to immerse into Japanese culture to understand the full context of his area of coverage.

While that level of immersion may not be possible with parachute journalism, being in the region concerned may provide some context.

“Maybe they’ve been in the region for a long time so maybe they have an understanding of issues and topics in the region… they may have some relevant experience or understanding that could be useful,” said van Zutphen.

Vincent Ni, currently China Affairs correspondent for The Guardian, added the importance of being familiar with the region. Being a native Chinese speaker helped Ni overcome the language barrier – one of the biggest hurdles he thinks foreign correspondents face. Having lived in the UK and the US and traveled to many other countries over the years also gave him a comparative perspective when covering the world’s most populous country today.

An open mind is another integral aspect of foreign correspondence.

“It’s always very tempting to generalize and jump to conclusions, but it’s challenging to put things into perspective – why do people say things they do? Why do they think differently from us? What’s the social and political context behind them?”

“In some ways, explaining the context and making sense of the bigger picture is even more important these days.”

It takes time for a correspondent to adapt to the language or understand cultural nuances – an element that parachute journalists often lack. Ni thinks getting access to important breaking stories is worth applauding – so long as the journalist remains impartial and does not shy away from tough questions.  

“[But] we have to call a spade a spade. If there’s something horribly wrong, then it’s horribly wrong. It’s not because they have different cultural practices,” explained Ni. 

Sanne Breimer, who founded inclusivejournalism.com and writes for platforms like Magdalene.co (a feminist media platform operating out of Indonesia), says collaboration should replace parachute journalism. 

“What was really good about (Clarissa Ward’s parachuting) was that she created a very strong emotion around the topic… but people have also probably forgotten about it now because there is no continuous reporting,” said Breimer, who had just conducted a course for the Asian Pacific Broadcasting Union for journalists which included a module on inclusive journalism. 

She felt that short-term approaches cannot address long-term problems. 

“For example, in the Myanmar case… instead of parachuting someone in, develop a long term strategy and… (ask) how can we collaborate with journalists in Myanmar to report from their side for our platform,” suggested Breimer, “It would be great if a (local) organization could be backed by an international organization like CNN to help them survive.” 

Ward might not agree. In a tweet following the backlash, she reduced her detractors to “a handful of white male academics/commentators (none of them in the country),” ignoring the veracity of the criticism, as well as the condemning chorus of Burmese and Asian voices. 

But there is hope for a more collaborative form of journalism as prescribed by Breimer, practiced by van Zutphen, and exemplified by a wave of partnerships sweeping across the world, from The Solutions Journalism Africa Initiative, which aims to help African newsrooms rewrite colonial narratives about Africa, to Énois, an initiative that helps to train Brazilian newsrooms. 

Perhaps one day, newsrooms all over the world will collaborate with one another to provide the best news coverage – often by reliance on reporters who can walk over, not parachute from above. If one parachutes in, how can the story be objective if the landing zone is decided for you?

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