We should stop parachuting Western journalists into foreign countries

CNN journalist Clarissa Ward shared the boarding pass of her flight to Myanmar on Twitter and immediately received a lot of backlashes. Her tweet has almost seven thousands comments, a lot of them calling her visit into question, as the country is under military rule since the coup in the beginning of February and she apparently gets escorted by the Tatmadaw (the official name for the armed forces in Myanmar).

Not all details are clear to me yet, but since Ward put a foot on Burmese ground some of the people she interviewed already got arrested after talking to her.

It reminded me of what we call “Parachute Journalism”, meaning:

The practice of placing journalists into an area to report on a story in which the reporter has little knowledge or experience. The lack of knowledge and tight deadlines often result in inaccurate or distorted news reports, especially during breaking news.

It’s often Western journalists who travel to conflict areas around the world to report for mass media organization. Or as Alan Soon of Splice Media calls them: white celebrity journalists. I grew up thinking it would be an important job to become a war or conflict journalist but the more I read and hear about it, the more I doubt if that’s true.

Let’s look at Myanmar for example. I was lucky to spend two months in the country during my travels in 2019 and 2020 and I’ve met Burmese journalists at several media conferences I’ve visited during that time in South East Asia. There already is good quality journalism happening in the country. Frontier Myanmar and Myanmar Now, to name just two media organizations. In fact, I would argue that if there is one group of journalists that realizes more than others the importance of our profession, it’s probably the colleagues in Myanmar. The role of media as a watchdog of democracy is lived by them day in and out.

So why wouldn’t Western media organizations collaborate with these local journalists instead of parachuting their own reporter for a breaking news story?

If you look at this issue through the lens of systemic racism, it makes complete sense. The Western superiority feeling, based on our culture of whiteness, runs through our mass media organizations as well. Local journalists are asked to produce a story or be a fixer and in rare cases are added in a byline, but the credits will go to the Western parachutist.

The exact arguments for this behavior are a bit hard to describe because it’s more like a blind spot. The culture of whiteness lets us believe that Western societies are ahead of the rest of the world. And even if that’s true in some regards – if you look at fair elections and the system of democracy for example – it doesn’t mean that the people in the rest of the world are more stupid than we are.

The white savior complex refers to a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner. That is what is going on in parachute journalism. And instead of solely condemning Ward for this, it’s better to hold her employer CNN accountable. And what about the role of lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe in this case? He apparently arranged the press trip for CNN, saying to Reuters:

“We feel that people should go in and report what they report, whether it’s good or bad. What was being reported until now is really nonsense”.

The arrogance that breathes his remark is just out of this world.

It leaves the question if CNN should broadcast Ward’s reporting, is it ethical to do that in this case? It would probably be better if the media organization reflects on this matter and takes responsibility for the detainees.

When I shared this topic on my Instagram people commented with experiences from Syria and the Caribbean Netherlands:

This is so on point, during the Syrian uprising many journalist came in from abroad to cover it. So many of them were escorted by regime units through the country and came back to report a very screwed up view of the realities on the ground. To an extent that it created a very negative and I have to point out unjustifiable reaction from the opposition where they began to see foreign journalist as a threat. Not to discredit some of the amazing work some of them accomplished at great personal risk how ever the Syria voice was silenced because the west never accept that a voice from with in the conflict can be neutral and report facts. There was never acceptance of actual Syrian journalism and even when they wrote fantastic articles, books and created other media it was always silenced by some white guy who’s been to Syria once or twice. Mean while you won’t ever see some one questioning the reporting of a Brooklyn based reporter when they report out of Brooklyn. Right wing conspiracy theorist aside Ofcourse. – Mustafa Ajlyakin

My point exactly! Stop doing this. On the Caribbean Netherlands islands, for example, we have more than enough solid journalists, but European media prefer a construction in which the local journalists are allowed to fix sources, translations, etc. for a small fee, while the journalists flew in with the big story and the credits. Often not thorough because they simply do not have the expertise. – Natasja Gibbs

Apparently, it’s a hot topic. Let’s see if the Ward-case will have consequences for the future of parachute journalism.

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