How to Report from Overseas

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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."

 

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