I knew very soon that what I wanted to do was to hit the button. Telling stories, more like. Because when I was a teenager I wanted to write songs, but that didn’t work out. It was a little over two decades ago that I began to fantasize about being a reporter, although at the time I thought journalists were superheroes, especially those on the other side of the world. All that was a long way from my suburban neighborhood.
At that time, the profession of the journalist had a better press – a curious paradox – than it does today. The girls in the slum said that journalists were more attractive and a cut from any newspaper served to justify that if something was said there it had to be true. There was no talk of sewers, nor were there any so-and-so making fools of themselves on TV sets, sponsored by supposedly serious newspapers. Those who wrote in the press were valued.
Today it’s the other way around. And no wonder someone wants to spit on me when I tell them I write in newspapers. “All journalists are liars, I hate them.” It’s a phrase I’ve seen in the mouths of too many, and what do you want me to say? In part they have reason to release such verbiage.
The world of journalism is going through turbulent times, and I have no doubt that we are in a transitional phase between what is no longer and what will have to be. But it pains me too much that, at a time when information is most readily available, the public is enormously uninformed and polarized.
The paper has two newscasts left. And to the news not much else.
My opinion is that the best information will be provided in the almost immediate future by independent people. No need to have sucked on a chair at a university, but with criteria and style of their own. But this article I am writing today is not about the global press, although I have allowed myself to think about it.
People ask me why I came to Asia, and perhaps the most important thing for me is that on this side of the planet there are still stories to be lived, but above all to be told. At least here one meets the most varied. And after almost a decade of that and having reported hundreds of articles, I think the bulk of the international information we read in the media is dead. And yet, long live global journalism.
Do we need international journalism?
Those of us who have ink in our veins and love this storytelling have always wanted to be correspondents. Unfortunately, today there are virtually no reporters left to tell what is happening beyond their borders. They say it’s because the public isn’t interested, but I’d say it’s more the media that doesn’t find it profitable.
International journalism, for those of us who work in it, has something that is unique. This is because it is the kind of reporting that is least affected by what they call the trenches, which are nothing more than sides and economic or political interests. In my five years in the editorial staff of one of the most important newspapers in Spain I learned a lot, but I also found it hard to manipulate the news to put a cloak over the political party or to point the finger at the opposite. Often in a totally unjustified way.
On the other hand, when you are on the other side of the world – and especially in the almost forgotten countries – all that matters less. In all these years in Asia, when they have wanted to change something in one of the many newspapers where I have published it has been for personal reasons of the editors. Normally, the editor who is out is given the open bar, as long as he tells stories that are worthwhile.
The problem is that the media has cut the budget for correspondents. As an example, I have met people in El País who have been paid about 30 euros for a chronicle. Or about 500 for a report that had to be worked on for weeks in another country. The World has been paying 50 euros a piece for years, whatever it is.
Journalists, of course, should not accept such abuse. But what can those who want to publish do? When I found myself in that situation, I opened a blog and started to tell what I really wanted. The future of international information is surely in small and alternative media. That’s why I can write in big newspapers and still be more comfortable in Conmochila.
Most of the international news that we read in the media today are rehashed with luck and unfortunately on many occasions it is manipulated information that has been leaked to the media because they do not have what it takes, real correspondents.
Does this mean that we should dispense with international journalism, that it is better to stop reading the news and keep what appears on social networks? Not at all. Only, as readers, we have to be terribly critical. And I can leave a few anecdotes about how ugly some scenarios are.
Alert when information is from agencies
Efe is the main Spanish news agency.
Not many readers know this, but much of what is read or seen on television is cooked up by people outside the medium in question. The information agencies are state bodies that have a large number of journalists to provide aseptic and telegraphic information to the media, which they should use to contextualize their information and maximize it.
In fact, most agency information should not be published in the media as sent, but should be corroborated and used in conjunction with personal investigations. Because many times those notes they send out only contain official versions. However, the media nowadays use them on a piecemeal basis and, for lack of means – another paradox – they end up giving wrong information.
Just over a week ago, Spanish newspapers published the name of a Galician citizen living on the remote Philippine island of Siargao who had been shot dead. Almost all the media read the victim’s full name and said he had been shot by the police because he was allegedly caught with cocaine, and said he pointed a gun at the officers, who had no choice but to shoot him.
This story was published because the media picked it up as it was from the agencies, which picked up the official insulting version. Siargao is an island in the middle of nowhere with serious corruption problems where it’s easy to extort money from someone who does well in business – as was the case with the Spaniard – and even kill him if he doesn’t turn on the mafias.
Why did no one in the newspaper editors want to question the official version of a police force that kills left and right without explanation? More than anything, it’s laziness and lack of time. They validated the information from the agencies and sullied the name of a victim who had been killed. I only saw one serious and contrasting article on this subject, and it was in the least expected digital newspaper.
International lounge journalism and the pluggers who make a killing
As readers, we must also be alert when an international article is signed by someone with a first and last name but does not specify where it is written from. There are few international correspondents left, and the media want to amortize them in any way. They may have one person to cover the giant that is the entire Asian continent.
The global correspondent thing works if the issue is covering something on the spot and the reporter gets on a plane to where it happened. But it’s not usually like that.
I remember the day the ninth king of the Rama dynasty in Thailand died, who was very much loved by his people despite the darkness around him. For many years, I had studied his trajectory and collected information that was not easy to obtain. I was ready to do a different and powerful article, and I was offered to do it where I least expected it.
-Hey, Luis, why don’t you sell the song to El Pais? -A colleague of mine who works in Madrid at the legendary newspaper commented on the phone: “El País has not been what it used to be for years”, I answered, knowing how the newspaper that was the main newspaper in Spain for decades had collapsed.
Encouraged by the colleague, I sent an email to the head of the international section and offered him the story. He answered me very briefly. “Thank you, but no. We have a correspondent in Beijing and she can do it remotely.
That’s what El País has become, that newspaper that a decade ago was synonymous with being informed, and that today buying it is a sign of being rather uninformed. Not only was he the first to dump all the paper content on the Internet and make his paper purchase stupid, but he is also in the service of big business.
I know the correspondent in Beijing who commented on that fool in his short email. She’s a great guy and a very determined journalist, but the King in Thailand had to be covered by spouting other information from thousands of miles away. It is not their fault – just as the few remaining correspondents are not to blame – after all, it is the media that do not care about the quality of the information or its originality.
Sometimes a reporter can do a great story about what is happening in a country without being in that territory when it happens. Andrew Mc Gregor Marshall is one of Thailand’s foremost experts and – because of the enemies he has forged through his courage – sends his chronicles from outside the country. But usually what happens is that, in order to take advantage of the correspondent, the media force their editors to write about issues that they have not been able to live with.
And then there are the mangers, which is like journalistic jargon for those who get a cut. Yeah, there are also guys who get a good hiding for publishing what their master wants. Of those there are many in China who are in the pay of the Communist Party to talk about the goodness of the new empire and to avoid that which is ungraspable. Not to mention those who write chronicles because they are given trips, cell phones or motorcycles. There are many more guys sold out than readers realize.
And where is the hope of international journalism?
Photojournalism is a must. We can’t be satisfied with photos taken on cell phones by passing tourists. In the picture, some students look at the kids from the school across the street, Photo: Wayne S Gracio.
It may seem that I have painted a very black picture here, but the reality is different. Journalism is changing and it is facing the demon of social networks, which is a double-edged sword; on one hand it displays the information but on the other hand it sneaks in a lot of false news and in addition people read only the headlines and leave the news aside.
There are still very good international correspondents, and if we identify them, we can get great stories. To mention two in Thailand that I admire, I’ll take Thomas Fuller of the New York Times and Johnathan Head of the BBC. Both have been in the country too long, are experts and tell brave stories. Because true journalism must be courageous and point out the powerful, show their shame and demand responsibility. Unfortunately, the newsrooms are full of sycophants and sellouts.
For my part, I’ll stick to what the Heroes of Silence popularized in their decline with that timeless song that is Apuesta por el rock, a version of the original song by the musicians and poets from Zaragoza, Mauricio Aznar and Paco Calero. On the subject, they talked about putting on their boots and doing the only thing they knew how to do, even if the easy thing was to bet on their defeat.
What better idea for international journalists than to put on their boots and get on the road, without giving up. Keep writing what you see, even though you will most likely experience the defeat of having no one read to you. Because, who knows, perhaps one day the small independent media that are appearing will be the ones that really take up the baton of that international journalism that, today, is as indispensable as it ever was.
Against the grain, by Luis Garrido-Julve