After a late night talking to John Zuarino for a sweet interview he did with me about the book, a night pushed through with the ingestion of Emergen-C and Samahan to stave off whatever illness is in the air, and a morning spent volunteering at a book fair, I was feeling pretty wiped. What, oh what, could I blog about? As usual, Facebook gave me an easy answer. Scrolling through the links my friends had posted, I came across yet another account by a foreign journalist, in this case an Australian, ranting about restrictions on travel into the areas in which the Sri Lankan government is fighting the terrorist group, the LTTE. That there are restrictions on travel into the Vanni is true. That usually is the case when there is a war going on. The government did not, and will not, allow this journalist into the zones where the LTTE is holding Tamil civilians hostage. They did and will allow Sir John Holmes, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator to travel through those same areas freely. Those restrictions are in place for the safety of the reporters themselves. As a case in point, my own brother, a senior and well respected journalist and someone who works for Sri Lanka’s media unit is, himself, required to undergo the same process to request permission in order to travel to the North as well as the security to do so safely.
It is all too easy for these fly-in journalists to put their neat articles together based on whim and fancy, and our desire to “access the latest breaking news” from anywhere, be it through bloggers or twitterers, makes us complicit in the creation of untruths. A journalist who wishes to cover a current conflict can only do so with any credibility if they have taken the time and gone to the trouble of learning about the country about which they want to talk. In a hard-hitting and prescient article in the American Journalism Review, Sherry Ricchiardi wrote about the age of “parachute journalism,” i.e. those who drop by and write about conflicts they do not understand. She quoted Ted Koppel thus:
Nevertheless, it still amounts to parachute journalism. “Look, I don’t care how good you are, how experienced you are, if you’ve never been in a country before, and you are just parachuted in to cover a crisis, all you can do is skim the surface of what is going on…You don’t have sources, you don’t have the background, you don’t have the context.”
Among the journalists who are commended in her article is Roy Gutman, who reported from 1989 to 1994 as Europe bureau chief for Newsday, work for which he was honored with a Pulitzer in 1993 and the George Polk Award for foreign reporting. Gutman’s claims the work he put into building a solid base of knowledge and “becoming intimately acquainted with the territory” he covered as his strengths. “You have to have experienced people who can figure out the big pictures as well as the little picture. The worst thing that can happen in a crisis…is taking the word of one side or the other and running with it and not understanding the context,” he is quoted as saying at the time.
It is bad enough when journalists take the easy route of interviewing a few expatriates – without investigating their political and economic investment in giving a particular slant to a story – or quote “sources” they access via a long-distance phone call. But it is particularly egregious to do so when it involves a small country on the other side of the world that most people have never heard of and whose fate, too, is not of import to a given international readership. But they are no less human, no less complex, no less deserving of respect than the people who glance at these stories over their morning cups of cappuccino down a street in New York City, or in a bookstore outside Melbourne.