How to Report from Overseas

Return to main article:

When headed abroad on a story, Mark Danner, who knows French and Spanish, prepares very thoroughly beforehand by learning about the local history, politics, and geography; this allows him to guess what might come next. "In Haiti, for example, Gonaives is a city of revolution," he says. "Typically, an uprising will start there, move through the country, and come to the capital last." Second, he tries to make as many contacts as possible: "Not just the key political players, but doctors, day laborers, people who own small grocery stores, artists, farmers. People off the beaten track; it's good to get someone who has never talked to a journalist before. You have to surmount obstacles, like—in Haiti—having white skin and being a foreigner. You want to work like hell and talk to people all the time.

"Third, make what ignorance you have your main strength," he continues. "Treat your innocent eye like a great treasure. See what surprises you about the place, and try not to filter what you see through the traditional journalistic lens of what is supposed to be important. The most valuable thing you bring is your own reactions to that place. There's a great corporate pressure to come up with the same lead that everybody else does. Instead, do everything you can to keep that individuality and originality. A corollary is having a kind of skepticism about the story as it's being told. Don't only rely on the people who traditionally translate the society to foreigners—diplomats, officials, the educated class that has been trained abroad. Talk to people like the desk officer at the World Bank who can lead you to mid- and lower-level officials who know where the bodies are buried. Make contact 'horizontally,' in government and society, through international agencies and nongovernmental organizations; that's more valuable than getting interviews with ministers.

"Fourth, distrust easy answers; societies are profoundly complicated. By the time you've been there for a while you should be thinking, 'I know nothing about this place, I'm totally, utterly, deeply confused about what's happening here.' The more information you take in, the more you'll feel that way. Don't worry: that's a good sign.

"Fifth, don't get killed."


You might also like

How Air Pollution Affects Our Brains

An expert Harvard panel discusses the links between air pollution and dementia, learning, mental health, and mood.

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Most popular

Fracking’s Future

Natural gas, the economy, and America’s energy prospects

Commencement Confetti

This and that from Harvard’s annual graduation extravaganza

Vita: John Usher Monro

Brief life of an uncommon educator: 1912-2002

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults