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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, November 23, 2012

How (Not) To Be a Foreign Correspondent



One of my students suggested that I look at this link of an online 'zine called Vice.

It's how a young and adventurous Brit called Sunil Patel decided to go to Syria and see for himself what's going on.

After almost getting himself and a few others killed, he decided that foreign reporting especially in war zones, is not for him.

He's now back in London.

As an example of irresponsible publishing, Vice actually put this astonishing disclaimer on its website:

Sunil Patel had never been published before he decided to go to Syria in August 2012 to become a war correspondent. Before his trip, the 25-year-old worked as a community-support officer for the London Police, lived with his mom and dad, and occasionally volunteered in Palestinian and Kurdish refugee camps. On one of his activist trips, Sunil befriended an ever so slightly more experienced freelance journalist from Canada who promised to take him into parts of Syria that were almost impossible for a foreigner to get to through legal routes. It was a foolish idea for sure, and he almost died several times during his trip, but we still think his story was worth the risk. And no, VICE did not send him there. He did this of his own accord, and we found out about it after the fact. 

My student was impressed by the writer's willingness to put himself in harm's way. Said she:

Thought this was a fantastic and interesting example or journalistic storytelling. I was captivated for the entire five pages. It seems to provide an unbiased description of what has happened/is happening in Syria. I was just wondering what you thought of Vice's somewhat alternative take on journalism?

I thought the writer and his accompanying video shows some talent and promise. But I was appalled as well.

I told my student:

It is absolutely fascinating reporting from a non-journalist. The problems
I have with it are many:

1. What's his motivation for going?
2. Did he tell us anything we didn't know?
3. Is there any context to his reporting?
4. If he really had got into trouble, how was he going to get out of it?
5. Is this really just a form of war pornography?
6. Did he make it better or worse for other journalists to go in to Syria?
7. What sorts of preparations did he undertake before he went?
8. Did he endanger anyone else by going?
9. Does this adventure make it less or more difficult for other real journalists?
10. What about his state of mental health now that he has experienced this?

So yes, it satisfied us as readers on some levels. But the
consequences of his trip are very serious. And Vice should be encouraging
responsible war reporting. Not narcissistic wanderings. 

We should talk some more about this.


And the next day, we did discuss it in class after viewing the video. I don't want to discourage talented young people from going overseas and sampling some of the best and the worst that the world of journalism can offer. I hesitated from warning them off. Like many others before them, they will have to go and try it for themselves.

But as media organizations increasingly withdraw from the expense of foreign reporting, who will guide (and protect) these budding forcorrs?

1 comment:

  1. That's more travel writing than journalism, in my opinion, but Vice did worse here
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/12/07/dear-journalists-at-vice-and-elsewhere-here-are-some-simple-ways-not-to-get-your-source-arrested/?utm_campaign=forbestwittersf&utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social

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