In February 2020, Carla Rhodes arrived in India’s northeastern state of Assam to photograph greater adjutant storks. The endangered birds had found unlikely haven in a sprawling landfill, where they scavenged for food. The birds’ appearance was as striking as their lifestyle, with their naked heads, wide blue stares, wiry legs, and engorged neck pouches. But to Rhodes, the region’s greatest draw was an enterprising biologist named Purnima Devi Barman, who had organized a remarkable community of other local women to wrestle the species back from the brink of extinction.
It was Rhodes’s first international trip to photograph wildlife conservation, and she knew that this story could launch her career as a wildlife-conservation photographer. But she was also uneasy. Recognizing her white privilege and status as an outsider based in New York State, half a world away, she worried about what she might miss, what she might get wrong, and most of all, that her project might end up exploiting the people whose work she set out to document, without meaningful benefit to them or the birds.
“I’m not going to ever feel good just showing up somewhere and taking,” says Rhodes. “It was very important to me to get to know … the biologists, learn about the community, [and] try to become part of the community, if they let me in.”
Like other journalists who work in countries where they don’t live, Rhodes was navigating tricky ground: As an outsider, how could she ensure that both her conduct and her resulting work were as ethical as possible?
To Avoid Misrepresentation, Dedicate Time and Effort
There’s a phrase to describe journalists dropping in to report in a landscape that they have scant knowledge about: parachute journalism. Foreign journalists aren’t the only perpetrators; reporters can also misrepresent communities even within national borders of their own countries, as seen in the U.S. media’s bungled coverage of rural America during the 2016 election season. The practice often leads to cultural misunderstandings, errors of both fact and interpretation, and the perpetuation of stereotypes. It may also undermine the true value of journalism, says Myriam Vidal Valero, a Mexican journalist based in New York City. “[Journalism] is about bringing stories to the people, so [we] can have more empathy and more understanding with each other, because you’re actually bringing them different ways of thinking [about] the world,” she says.
Journalists in developing countries are all too familiar with parachute journalism and its consequences. In Africa, for example, outlets from wealthy Western countries often portray inhabitants as culturally and economically monolithic, despite the continent’s dozens of countries, thousands of ethnic groups, and thousands of languages, says Verah Okeyo, a science journalist, teacher, and communications specialist based in Kenya.
COVID coverage has been particularly problematic, she says. At the start of the pandemic, when many African countries recorded fewer deaths than Western countries, some outlets repeatedly disregarded local healthcare expertise that arose from past experiences with communicable disease and zoonotic outbreaks, and assumed people across Africa would, as Okeyo says, be “dropping like flies.” When the data didn’t bear that out, she says, they blamed poor data collection, rather than allowing for the possibility that some countries were managing the risks well.
This kind of depiction isn’t just offensive, but also harmful. On top of giving the impression of a shoddy healthcare infrastructure, Western media outlets often portray African countries as violent and corrupt by blowing one-off tragedies out of proportion, says Okeyo. The generic landscape of danger that outside media paints of the continent may scare away tourists and external investment.
The ethics of international reporting can be murky, and there are no universal guidelines about how to do better. But the best safeguards are simple, starting with careful preparation and staying aware of the power dynamics involved.
The ethics of international reporting can be murky, and there are no universal guidelines about how to do better. But the best safeguards are simple, starting with careful preparation and staying aware of the power dynamics involved. As the reporter, “you’re going to be the person who decides what is representing that community for that moment,” says Robin Marantz Henig, a freelance journalist who also teaches journalism ethics in New York University’s science journalism program. “There’s something inherently unequal about that whole relationship.”
Long before an international reporting trip, journalists should get up to speed on relevant background for the issue at hand. This includes conducting pre-reporting interviews, reading up on the topic of interest, and learning about the people living in the destination as much as possible—“research, research, research,” says Rhodes.
Aware of her unfamiliarity with the subject, before her own trip Rhodes corresponded with Barman for a year and a half to learn as much as she could about the region and to build trust with the Assamese biologist. In her own time, she also read widely on greater adjutant storks and the local customs in Assam to avoid cultural faux pas.
When the time came for her trip, she immersed herself in the community for as long as she could afford. Making effort to adapt to the local culture, she picked up essential words in Assamese and Hindi, dressed according to local social norms, as recommended by her host, and accompanied her sources to temples and outreach centers. “For the whole first week I was there, I didn’t even pick up my camera,” Rhodes says. Her earnestness garnered her a strong rapport with the people in the community. Now, she has a return invitation to pursue projects related to the one that brought her to the region.
Visiting a region to understand an issue’s complexities can also help a journalist build context before they ever land an assignment or represent the region in print or images. In 2017, U.K.-based freelancer and current Inkcap Journal editor Sophie Yeo covered her own travel costs to the Brazilian Amazon to observe scientists studying how to best protect the pink river dolphin. It was a gamble, but it greatly deepened her knowledge. “Once I got back from the reporting trip, the story was actually quite different from what I’d envisioned it to be,” says Yeo, and “a better one for [my] having been there and been able to get the nuances of the topic.” In the end, she accumulated enough reporting to land six different assignments.
Beyond interviewing academics and reading published journal articles, Isabel Esterman, an Egypt-based editor for Mongabay’s Southeast Asian and African coverage, encourages getting the opinions of local experts from the community when covering new policies, scientific discoveries, or conservation efforts. With conservation stories, especially, she cautions that a common—and frequently false—narrative is that “the local people are destroying the environment, and the foreign [nonprofit organizations] are trying to fix problems.” It’s important to remember that locals have agency and knowledge to make the best of their situations, even if their solutions are culturally different from those often applied in the West.
Work Responsibly with Local Collaborators
As important as it is to feature local voices, it can be hard from a distance to find the right people on the ground, especially if there’s a language barrier. One good approach is to ask initial interviewees for recommendations. Many journalists also turn to a fixer, which they often find by soliciting recommendations from other writers.
Fixers are people with the skills and knowledge to connect foreign journalists with members of a community once they reach their destination. Fixers can be local journalists, university students, professional tour guides, or informal helpers. They may act as translators, researchers, logistics managers, and drivers, depending on their expertise and the terms of the agreement both parties work out in advance, including adequate compensation. According to a 2017 survey by the Global Reporting Center*, fixer rates fall between $50 and $400 per day, depending on the country, the cost of living, and the hazards involved in the project.
In addition to ensuring fair pay, visiting journalists should advocate to give appropriate credit to fixers and local journalists who help with a story, especially if they have contributed significant reporting.
In addition to ensuring fair pay, visiting journalists should advocate to give appropriate credit to fixers and local journalists who help with a story, especially if they have contributed significant reporting. “They really are filling in a gap in the visiting reporter’s knowledge,” says Michelle Nijhuis, a project editor at The Atlantic who lives in Washington State and has reported abroad in China and Namibia. “I just would love to see magazines make that standard policy where if you hired a fixer, they would get a byline. It’s a cultural change that should happen.”
Fixers in countries where journalism is a precarious enterprise deserve extra consideration. Astrid Arellano, a Mexico-based journalist for Mongabay Latam covering Indigenous environmental activists in Latin America, says that large media outlets should use their vast resources to secure protection in the form of short-term health insurance or emergency medical assistance for local fixers who stay behind in conflict zones.
Protecting and Honoring Sources
Fixers aren’t the only ones who deserve journalists’ care and protection. Journalists also need to keep the well-being of their sources in mind, particularly those who aren’t public figures. That means obtaining proper consent before conducting interviews or taking photos. “What I try to do is just explain as much as possible,” says Joseph Lee, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and an Indigenous Affairs Fellow at Grist who reports on Indigenous communities around the world. That includes “who I am, where I come from, here’s why I want to talk to you, and here’s how the process is going go.” The transparency lets sources know what to expect, ask questions, and decide whether they want to participate.
Journalists should take source protection a step further if talking to the media puts them in real danger. Latin America is the most dangerous place to be an environmental defender, according to Arellano of Mongabay. When she interviews activists, she starts by asking what topics they are comfortable speaking about on the record, giving them control of the discussion. “If your source tells you they don’t want to talk about this … or they don’t want their names to appear in print, you should respect that,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how powerful the phrase you just recorded on your recorder. It is more about putting yourself in the shoes of those who stay in the territory to face those daily risks.”
Adds Nijhuis of The Atlantic: “I think the biggest ethical risk of so-called parachute reporting is that you may unwittingly put sources, guides, or fixers at risk, because you don’t understand what’s politically sensitive.”
Treating sources with care sometimes also includes finding ways to honor their time and contributions, especially if a reporter is interviewing them outside the context of their paid work. After all, sources give something to journalists when they share their story or expertise, with no guarantee of return, while journalists get pay and a new byline and the outlet gets something to publish.
There is a long history of extractive journalism from underprivileged and exoticized communities, where journalists profit from sources’ stories and sources see no benefit.
Reimbursing the cost of gas for travel a source undertakes on the journalist’s behalf, gifts for a visit to their home, such as hard-to-get groceries, or paying for meals over which interviews occur can all be ways to show reciprocity, depending on the policies at a journalist’s outlet.
After her visit to India, Rhodes wanted to give something back to the grassroots volunteers who welcomed her into their world. More importantly, she wanted to show meaningful gratitude to biologist Barman, who hosted her. “Her allowing me access and letting me cover her story really changed my life,” says Rhodes. Since publishing her project in The New York Times, she has donated her photos of greater adjutants to her hosts. She also volunteers with their online outreach efforts and fundraising to boost conservation of the imperiled birds.
As far as tokens of appreciation go, conventional wisdom holds that journalists should never financially compensate people for information they share, lest it influence what they say. But paying sources in some cases is no longer as taboo as it once was. There is, after all, a long history of extractive journalism from underprivileged and exoticized communities, where journalists profit from sources’ stories and sources see no benefit. Perhaps the hour a source sits through an interview could have been better spent on their livelihood; time is valuable. Gifts or allowances in these cases may be best regarded as personal kindness to the source to show gratitude for the exchange.
When freelancer Henig reported on Samoa’s nonbinary genders for National Geographic, the scientist she shadowed told her that it was customary to give money as a gesture of goodwill to the locals, many of whom were poor. He had paid his subjects throughout his own research. Henig faced a quandary: She didn’t want to offend anyone, but she was also uncomfortable paying directly. She and her editor worked out a solution: She would give her interviewees money through the scientist, so her sources wouldn’t know it came from her.
Whenever available, the editor is a writer’s best resource for navigating sticky situations. Editors should set ground rules with writers before an international trip. In turn, writers should check in if sources request anything that makes them uncertain or uncomfortable. Both Nijhuis and Mongabay’s Esterman agree that part of their roles as editors is to be available to assist reporters in crises.
Recognize Inherent Limitations and Stay Open
Even if journalists do everything “right”—extensive preparation, interviewing local experts, employing well-connected fixers, adequately honoring sources and collaborators—they should remember that all people involved in a story carry deeply held ideas and beliefs.
The locals or fixers journalists talk to may provide only a curated view of a place’s complexities, and every journalist carries the benefit and baggage of their own experiences and background. When reporting abroad, “there are all sorts of ways that we’re not exactly representing what it really means to be from that part of the world,” but rather conveying one of many versions of the truth, says Henig.
Humility is a journalist’s best tool for recognizing their own and others’ biases, and how these may color their questions and material.
Humility is a journalist’s best tool for recognizing their own and others’ biases, and how these may color their questions and material. “The most important thing to me is that the writer understands what they don’t know,” says Nijhuis, “that they’re not drawing uninformed conclusions about a world that they’re not familiar with.” Esterman suggests to really listen to what the locals are saying and embrace the steep learning curve that comes with developing deep expertise on a new topic.
That means being open to new observations that challenge pre-reporting and pre-existing mindsets, says Okeyo. In 2017, for example, she visited northern Kenya and lived for a month among the Samburu people, a seminomadic tribe whose women the media has often depicted as oppressed. The women walk several miles every day to collect drinking water for their households. It’s an arduous chore, but over time Okeyo realized that the water sources served as social hubs for women who were otherwise housebound. Women that fetched water led rich social lives. “They are career women, just in their own way,” she says. “I never got that until I went to that community.”
The fight against parachute journalism can also be a two-way street. Local journalists working as fixers can also help by asking more of their own questions, says Okeyo, and challenge the perspective of visiting reporters who pursue misconceived hypotheses. Newsrooms around the globe must recruit diverse talent and increase the network of go-to journalists abroad to cover international stories.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to reporting—or learning—about something new and complex. It’s tempting to wield clichés and romanticized tropes when working under a time crunch. However, journalists who simply validate their own community’s perceptions of other communities are doing everyone a disservice, reminds Vidal Valero. Reporting is about delivering the truth and fostering empathy, and “the only way that you can actually do that is by challenging your own views,” she says. If journalism is a bridge between different cultures, journalists need to be the first to cross it.
* Correction 7/25/22: Due to an editorial error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a survey to the Global Investigative Journalism Network instead of the Global Reporting Center.
Shi En Kim is a life sciences reporter at Chemical & Engineering News and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Her work has appeared in Popular Science, National Geographic, Scientific American, Hakai Magazine, Science News, and Smithsonian Magazine, where she was a AAAS Mass Media Fellow in 2021. She recently earned her PhD in molecular engineering from the University of Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @goes_by_kim.