How To Be A Foreign Correspondent — Even If You Don’t Have Any Cleft Sticks

Reporters who travel through the world’s trouble spots spend a lot of  their time just trying to survive their own stupidity and ignorance.

It’s an honest ineptitude brought on by sudden lusts back at the desk that send the hapless correspondent scurrying from home base to ground zero on a few hours notice.

The result is a jet lagged reporter, clutching the wrong currency, missing a vital visa, arriving in the middle of back-of-beyond without a clue where to sleep that night. And oh yes, under savage desk orders to file an in-depth analysis piece on the latest turn of bizarre events before nightfall.

Here’s a Canadian example of honest ineptitude. During the last winter in Sarajevo before the Dayton Accords brought an end to that particular Balkan war, a clutch of American reporters at the bar one night took huge delight in telling me about two Canadian reporters who had just earned undying shame for applying to the Serbs for a visa to travel in Croatia. If that wasn’t bad enough, it turned out the reporters really wanted to go to Bosnia, but didn’t know it.

That’s like asking the French for permission to visit Germany.

And then, a few years before that incident, there was the newly arrived and very disoriented New York Daily something or other reporter who asked me in Mogadishu, a city where even the copper telephone wires had been looted out of the ground, if I could direct him to the nearest automatic banking machine.

Any reporter who has worked the nasty corners of the world will tell you that 90 percent of the job is simply looking after logistics; how to get there from here, where to stay, where to find clean water and food, and most important, where and how to file the story.

Whatever time is left over from simply figuring out basic living condition, if there is any time left, can go to working on the story.

The top pros have a technique for dealing with all of this.

After assignments and contracts in just about every war zone and humanitarian disaster of the last fifteen years I’m now convinced that the reason they are so good is
precisely because they know and use a blindingly obvious secret technique.

It puzzles me that more reporters don’t follow their lead.

The very moment they know they’ll be going somewhere odd, or they discover themselves in some vastly complicated conflict, they find out which international aid and relief agencies are on the ground.

Groups such as the International Red Cross, Medecins sans Frontieres, CARE, Lutheran World Federation, and many others, always have people on the ground well before reporters even realize there’s is a story going.

Aid workers know far more about what local conditions are like and what’s going on than any embassy official or military commander. In fact local diplomats and international military types get most of their information from aid workers.

The different aid and relief agencies also have communications facilities such as satellite phones and high speed internet links that they’re usually willing to lend to a
reporter in exchange for nothing more than goodwill.

A reporter stuck for a place to stay, can at the very least, get a recommendation for somewhere decent and quite often an offer of a bed and a meal from a relief group

Getting around in any messy conflict is always nearly impossible and hideously expensive.  I’ve paid as much as three hundred dollars a day for a car and driver in the really nasty parts of the world.  A hundred a day in your run of the mill quiet disaster area, say northern Afghanistan, will still cost about a hundred.

But here again the aid and relief agencies can come through big time. It’s almost always possible to hitch a ride with a relief worker and while they wouldn’t accept the offer of payment for road travel, will always be grateful for something towards the cost of a flight. Yes they’ll give receipts.

For reporters without much experience and trying desperately to climb the ladder to an international assignment, the home offices of the big aid and relief groups can be the ticket to somewhere nasty but newsworthy.

And you don’t have to leave home to get a start.
Any ambitious domestic reporter aspiring to a foreign assignment can easily build up an impressive portfolio of foreign stories filed domestically simply by talking with aid groups on a regular basis. There isn’t a week that goes by that an outfit such as CARE doesn’t have something new and startling to relay from its field workers in any of a hundred countries. Most of the time that stuff never gets
reported.

With half a dozen good stories already filed and a good story series proposal worked out with the help of aid agencies a foreign assignment is practically a sure bet.

I’m often asked about freelancing from a war zone.  It can be done but honestly, you would have an easier time selling snow shovels in Majorca.  Given that the daily cost of living in a disaster area is usually in the hundreds of dollars it is just about impossible to get enough nickel and dime assignments to make it worthwile.

It is possible to get hired by an international news agency in a war zone if they have an establish base in country.  The pay will be crap and the work about as good but you can get your foot in the door.

Being a war correspondent or a foreign correspondent specializing in the back-of-beyond savageries that go on, is a pretty stimulating life.  But after a while it wears people down and there comes a time when you want to work at home.  With years of tough reporting behind you a good editorial position is quite likely.  And then you will experience the most overpowering sense of ennui and futility as you try to report on what seems to you are trivial, no consequence, events in your home country.

Unless you can make the adjustment your journalistic life will become a hell far worse than anything you experienced in Iraq, Sudan, of any of the 0ther so-called conflict zones.

Which is why I am pretty sure that tonight if I walked into any of the half a dozen or so hotel bars I know in various hell holes around the world I would find any number of Senior Domestic Reporters, or Economics and Business News Editors, or Local TV News Anchors who had to walk away, or had been pushed out, and returned to the lands of bang-bang.

And by the way, if you don’t recognize the reference to “Cleft Sticks” in the title then you are missing a significant part of your training as a foreign war correspondent.  Go buy a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop — it’s the best manual on war reporting ever written.

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