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Published:October 29th, 2006 15:28 EST
High Tech Barriers of Journalism

High Tech Barriers of Journalism

By Krzys Wasilewski

Imagine that you are a journalist who is sent to a country far, far away. You cannot even pronounce its name, but your editor thinks you are just the right person to fill the empty post of a foreign correspondent. After a long and turbulent flight, you land at a down-at-heel airport, thronged with people wearing funnily strange clothes and speaking the language that resembles the throb of your old Ford. 

Angry with the taxi driver, who has brazenly robbed you for the five-minute drive, you enter the derelict building proudly called “The Grand Hotel.” As soon as your eyes adjust to the semi darkness of the corridor, the search for a receptionist begins. Exhaustion fills your each muscle, making every successive move more painful than the previous one. But it is not until dozens of gestures and mimics (why the hell he can't speak English?) that the receptionist gives you the keys and shows you the way to your room. Never mind the dirt and cockroaches, you hit the bed and fall asleep. Within hours, the power is back, so is sobriety, and you realize that the big problems are yet to come. You are in the country the name of which you had lost, along with your bag, at the airport. Moreover, you have no idea of its history, culture, and tradition, to say nothing of its language and customs. Hopefully, the receptionist will contact you with a thug-like looking guy who claims to speak English and would love to be your guide. A short conversation proves, however, that working with him would be so impossible a task as making a New York taxi driver take you where told. All doubts put aside, you had better start working because the editor expects the first text tomorrow. “Add some historical background,” are the last words you hear until the connection is cut off. “Power shortages,” explains the receptionist with a disarming smile. 

This is how the life of a foreign correspondent might have looked like 50 years ago, when most of the modern technology was yet to be discovered. Men of pen had to prove their determination and bravery every time the thirst for news and sensation led them to a rusty airplane which, by a stroke of luck, would take them to one of young democracies in Africa or Asia. Once they reached their destination they could count on nothing more but limited funds and their journalistic nose. Surprisingly, the stories they produced were often masterpieces, praised for objectivity, complexity and, last but not least, salability. 

The world has moved forward since then. Old airplanes, which gave correspondents an extra thrill, had long been cut up for razor blades. Now, even the longest flight can be as pleasant as a night in a five star hotel. And talking about the latter – these, too, have improved their comfort; deaf and rude receptionists being the only thing that has remained unchanged at every longitude and latitude. Journalists are armed with dozens of gadgets that make it possible to broadcast with a Hollywood-quality even from the most remote corners of the Amazon Jungle. Notebooks with creased, off-yellow pages, which used to distinguish journalists from ordinary tourists, gave in to Kate Moss-like thin laptops, morphing correspondents from fearless adventurers into businessmen. In other words: less Indiana Jones, more Bill Gates. 

However well equipped and trained are foreign correspondents, they lack what their predecessors had in profusion: knowledge. One might think that with Internet cafes endemic in every corner of the world and the satellite communication, reports are bound to be more informative and in-thought than ever. Nothing more delusive. Often it happens that foreign correspondent posts are taken up by people who have little or no idea of the country that is going to be their home for several months, if not years. And, unlike journalists of the old school, they get lost the moment they leave the safe haven of their editorial rooms. They have neither will nor skills to learn the country's history and culture what is vital to produce a good article.

For example, imagine a French journalist going to Ireland as a foreign correspondent. For people in obsessively secular France it is hard to understand how Ireland can be so hidebound to remain Catholic in the 21st century, let alone pride on it. Therefore to write about Ireland, and to do it well, the journalist should be aware of the country's millennium-long history, valiantly independence struggle, and ties with the Catholic Church. That is what theory says. In practice, scores of foreign correspondents base their relations on what they have read in local newspapers or heard on the radio. No surprise that the readers in Paris, Bordeaux, or Marseilles instead of having a clear idea of their Irish friends often get a blurred picture which reassures them in negative stereotypes. The world is getting smaller, as we hear every day. But even this shrinking planet is big enough to accommodate over 200 countries, which are officially acknowledged by the United Nations. That means over 200 different histories, different cultures, and different languages. Only in Europe, the smallest (apart from Australia) continent, roughly 40 countries and as many languages coexist with one another arguing over the troublesome past and trying to design a better future. Technology has provided journalists with great tools to make their jobs easier and better. It is up to them if they will be able to use them properly.