Dreams of Becoming A Foreign Correspondent
As a child, I used to sit in front of the TV wishing for the day I could become a foreign correspondent and travel from one country to another, witnessing History happening before my own eyes. I’d worked as a print journalist, and in the spring of 2015, I attended the Transom Story Workshop in order to broaden my storytelling skills.
During the workshop, I’d decided Southern Europe was going to be my turf. I’d been back in Portugal only two weeks when, that June, former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for a referendum on additional austerity demands from the European Union.
I used the last of my savings to buy a plane ticket to Athens, and for over a month I lived on sausage rolls and little to no sleep, reporting for three or four different news outlets. Every morning, I’d get up at 5 am to report on the radio, which gave me the thrill of feeling I was a real correspondent on the biggest breaking news story at the time. My dream!
Back at home, I needed time to recover. I was exhausted from not enough sleep, and didn’t exactly feel my reporting added anything to the world. For the first time, I questioned my childhood dream: Do I want this to be my life? Going from adrenaline rush to adrenaline rush just to satisfy my ego?
But two months later, I bought a plane ticket to Croatia, to follow the refugee crisis in the Balkans. Again, the adrenaline felt great, but at the end of the day, I felt a void and realized what I was missing was the ability to tell a story with more nuance.
If the urge for the adrenaline rush resonates, then I have some tips to share. Quick turnaround reporting may be what you crave, but keep in mind more time-consuming reporting and attention to detail will help your storytelling no matter what kind of reporting you do.
1. Be mindful about the urge to go. And let it go.
I don’t mean to stop you from buying a ticket to your first breaking news story. Or your second, or third. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, because, a) they made me feel on top of the world, b) they taught me what I really wanted from this work. I thought I wanted my byline glued to the biggest story of the moment, always. Turns out I didn’t. I am grateful I realized early on that I couldn’t handle it physically or emotionally.
Putting aside the part of me that craved the spotlight of breaking news wasn’t easy — I had to fight against the flash of adrenaline in my body that would surge at the sound of every breaking news notification on my phone. I started training myself to let it go. Once I forced myself to pause, I dove deeper and investigated what part of me was curious about the story, beyond the bang-bang of the “this just in,” jolt, and I started taking notes based on my own interests. Those notes can eventually become pitches for unique stories that only you can tell because they arose from your particular view of the world, which will then join other reporters’ unique views. I believe that enriches journalism, demonstrating to listeners that the world is much more complex than shorthand soundbites about specific countries or crisis situations.
2. Pick a turf. Or a theme. Or both.
I had selected a turf based on my country of origin, and the languages I spoke. At first, I wished Southern Europe could be a doorway for me into a broader career as an international reporter. And as I continued to study the area, I began to look at its dynamics afresh, adopting an outsider’s point of view, which allowed me to examine the shifts and narratives in a new way. My curiosity grew in ways that surprised me.
Diving in, I became particularly interested in the specific ways these indebted and politically challenged countries were reacting to the refugee crisis and started spending more and more time focusing on that topic. This opened my eyes to stories that were happening under the radar. Like the stories of activist migrants helping migrants fight for their rights in the south of Italy — this at a time when the country was increasingly fed up with immigrants and refugees. Or, my personal favorite, the story of a soccer team in the south of Spain, made of Spaniards and migrants. I was fortunate to work with an editor who was open to my idea of using the relationship of the two protagonists to illustrate the infantilization of migrants that was happening everywhere in that region. I wanted to illustrate how that treatment fosters the kind of disappointment that feeds the far right, which was just starting to happen in Spain. The editor made sure my script was nuanced enough to showcase all those dynamics, and we were both pleased with how humane and raw that story turned out.
3. Reporting for radio requires twice the time spent reporting for print.
The soccer team story in Spain has a print version and an audio version. Provided you let everyone you’re working with know your plan, going for both print and audio is a great way to double your income. It’s also a fascinating exercise in creating two very different stories out of one. I swear I can feel the nuance muscles becoming fitter and fitter as I work in each field. Three full days of reporting were more than enough to get all the material I needed to tell the story in print. While in the field, I had the “infantilization of migrants” idea as an angle for a radio story I pitched PRI. When I started out in radio, I was hesitant to pitch a radio story because I didn’t feel confident enough in my audio storytelling skills. When I bought a second plane ticket to tell a story, that confidence magically appeared.
Although I kept the recorder going all the time, in order to make the story work for radio, I still needed four more days of getting really close to the subjects — driving with them everywhere, cooking at their houses, being aware of their schedules and routines to make sure I was there for the fights and the conversations that helped me illustrate the point I was trying to make.
4. It makes your print story much better.
Even if the story I tell in print is slightly different, the color I get from all the audio I collect feeds my print reporting and makes it much more complex. Not only am I spending twice as much time as I would normally need on a story, the audio details I look for make my descriptions richer. Also, because I am constantly paying attention to making each story feel different, I spend more time sharpening my angle and writing. It’s a win-win situation.
5. Bring your umbrella.
Even if you’re probably not going to file a story while on the road, take an umbrella with you. I used to think that that turning my back on breaking news meant my life days reporting in the field went more smoothly because I could take my time and not care about filing the story straight away. It turns out that when you’re aligned with the region you’re working in and the themes you’re working on, you also align to breaking news events. And that means the thrill, the adrenaline, the rush of blood to the head — and, yes, your byline glued to the biggest story of the moment — comes back to you. It also means you’ll need to edit and track your story asap. After too many attempts at trying to voice inside a tiny, not so silent, IKEA closet in an Airbnb I learned to bring an umbrella!
I am glad that six-year-old got what she wanted. I am even gladder I realized that to tell the sort of audio stories I loved, I needed time to almost live with the characters I met, which is not easy to do in the middle of an event that keeps changing. The journalist in me found a balance between both approaches, and I no longer sit in front of the TV longing to go where History is happening. These days, I actually find those big events more ephemeral than the stories people tell me. So now I go, quietly, where there’s a story I am really curious to hear. It has happened that those stories sometimes predict the History that unfolds months or years later. That, for me, is a much bigger privilege to witness.
Storytelling is witnessing.
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