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May 22 2012

Going Native

The word expat always makes the chip on my shoulder rattle a bit. That’s a pity because it is one of the favourite words amongst commissioning foreign news editors. The “expat” in question is not necessarily of the same nationality of the person using the term. More often than not in the news business it is used to describe a reporter who is English, Canadian, American or Australian, namely, an Anglo-Saxon (by upbringing, not by ethnicity, thank god…); a native English speaker.

Broadcasters in English speaking countries in the West have by and large a clear preference for working with expats, and most of GRNLive’s correspondents are indeed of that variety. Their accents are easier on the ear of the audiences, and they are considered to be “beyond suspicion” of local loyalties, political inclinations and social ties which could, allegedly, bias their reporting. Most importantly the attention of local authorities in places with somewhat dubious regimes are less likely to try and threaten them out of doing their work properly.

Our expat correspondents, as with all our correspondents, are great professionals. Most of them work for the larger news publications and have experience of reporting different crisis situations around the world. For reasons of ease and language we tend to recruit them first and look for local correspondents mostly in places where we can not find “expats”. It seems to be our default option. It is also easily done. The expats are well netorked, they are aware of us, they recommend their friends to us, and they often approach us themselves.

But being foreign myself and having worked as a journalist and news editor for many years in my homeland Israel, I am also acutely aware of the advantages of local journalists. They know their countries in and out and they more often than not have perspectives that nobody else does. I’m always happy when one of our local journalists becomes a favourite with one of our clients, as often is the case. This does not imply compromising in any way shape or form on the quality of the reporting or the journalistic standards of its content and delivery. What it does mean is diversifying it and allowing for different perspectives.

Foreign correspondents can generally be divided into three strands: those who get parachuted into the scene as a big story breaks and hop, in the course of their career, from one spot to another; those who spend many years in one place, sometimes getting localised, even naturalising, perhaps because of personal circumstances (marriage etc.), they immerse themselves in the society they live in, learn its culture, politics, and to an extent “go native” while still bearing in mind the home audience to which they are reporting from their newfound, temporary or permanent home; the third is the local correspondent, making use of his or her local knowledge and their command of foreign languages, mainly English, to break into international media.

It is easy to become a partisan for one of those brands, and dismiss others. The truth is that each have their advantages and their potential occupational hazards. The parachuted reporters might lack the in-depth local knowledge but hitting the ground running with a fresh look and curiosity which matches the audience is a great acquired skill, which puts them on one footing with the people “back home”. Being a foreigner who has been living in the country for an extended period gives you localised advantages, long term contacts and knowledge of the social and political system, but with time they are at risk of knowing less about the target audience, or taking a certain amount of knowledge for granted. Some correspondents who have been living in a country for a very long time are suspected of “taking sides” or having very strong convictions regarding the subjects of coverage, though preconceptions are often held by newcomers too. Similar advantages and risks apply for the local correspondents.

We believe that a combination of all three kinds of reporters is what makes our pool of reporters so attractive to broadcasters and publishers. As long as we are all on the same page when it comes to the core values of journalism.

This is why we encourage, and will keep encouraging, local correspondents to join GRNLive. When we offer a correspondent to our clients we do it wholeheartedly, and with full trust in their professionalism. A full grasp of the broadcaster’s language, not only “linguistically” but also culturally, is essential, which is why we also urge producers to brief all our correspondents before they go on air as to the particular needs of the hit. We are also aware that distinct accents are sometimes harder to grasp especially when broadcast conditions are not ideal. At the same time that can give a certain authenticity to the hit. Our correspondents are aware of the importance of enhanced diction and speaking slowly and we are tuned to broadcasters’ feedback on such issues.

The only cases in which we get “protective” of our local correspondents is when we feel the situation in their countries puts them in greater physical danger of being arrested, or worse, than their foreign colleagues. That said, local reporters often show rare bravery and determination. During the post elections clashes in Iran two years ago, we were all in awe of the courage of our correspondent Saeed Kamali-Deghan, who insisted on broadcasting under his real name for all our clients, while the ring of authorities suspicion was closing around him. To our surprise, he actually was able to report relatively freely after most of his foreign counterparts were arrested and thrown out of the country. But we often debated the level of risk we could afford to let him expose himself too. At the end of the day, however, we felt it was his choice and sense of mission which should have the final say. The last thing we wanted to do was add to the oppression of free speech that so many in Iran were out to protest against and which Saeed was reporting on.

It also seems that the gaps are becoming smaller with every day that goes by. The globalised world, with all its perils and shortcomings, makes us more and more aware of each other. So much so that we are often tempted to believe that the world is one community which includes everybody who has a Facebook account, speaks English and owns an iPhone or worse. This brings great advantages in our ability to know the world around us better, but it is our mission as journalists to keep reminding ourselves that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants still live outside the realms of this holy trinity. All our correspondents, locals and expats, help achieve this goal. As the world becomes smaller “inside knowledge” and “outside perspective” may become more and more similar, and the ability of local correspondents to raise a voice from within into the international debate will become more and more significant. We will be there to provide it.

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