PRAGUE – When teaching, I often brandish the phrase “serious, responsible journalism.”
This to me means many things. But when it comes to foreign correspondence specifically, it’s the demand for context. For an audience back home, it would be un-serious to portray any situation – whether economic, political, social or otherwise – as if it happened overnight, in a vacuum. It didn’t, of course. And it may not have happened only here.
That’s why we have an obligation to broaden and deepen.
By broaden, I mean: Is this situation in Central European Country X unique, or actually part of a trend across post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe? Or even part of a wider trend among all 27 members of the European Union? In what way is it similar or different? And why exactly?
Clearly explaining this, somewhere up high, also provides the reader even greater incentive for why they should keep reading: either the situation describes is unique, or it’s a microcosm of a broader pattern.
This rule applies to virtually every story. We just had 15 participants for Transition Online’s latest foreign-correspondence training course, and they all chased topics that needed such context.
A Bosnian-born Australian and her Canadian reporting partner probed relations among the post-war Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian communities in Prague. Yet is this relationship unique to Prague, or similar elsewhere in the world, like Australia or Canada? Find an expert on the ex-Yugoslav diaspora, I recommended to them.
Meanwhile, an Egyptian and a New Yorker explored certain issues affecting Prague’s tiny Muslim and Jewish communities, respectively. A Brazilian explored growing Czech interest in the Portuguese language, while another Brazilian explored tolerant Czech policies toward marijuana. Two American women wrote about a handful of Czech female politicians who posed for a titillating calendar to win votes. A German-Serbian tandem explored reaction to the new Czech anti-smoking laws.
Again, compare apples to apples: how are any of these situations similar or different in Berlin or Bratislava, Budapest or Bucharest?
By deepen, I mean trace the roots of your story. Where exactly does it start? And why exactly there? How exactly did this situation evolve? And why exactly did it evolve the way it evolved?
All the examples above had some historical starting point we could identify, offering readers at least a few paragraphs of relevant, interesting material to put meat on the bones of our story. When did these Balkan communities flee Bosnia? From where, and why? When and why did Muslims come to the Czech Republic? Why have some Czechs converted to Islam? What foreign languages did Czechs learn during Communism, and why? Which have they gravitated toward since gaining the freedom to study, and why? Did marijuana even exist during Communism? Where did this Czech tolerance come from? Have any other female politicians in the region injected sex into politics? What were cigarette-smoking habits like during Communism, and why? When did the anti-smoking debate begin, and why?
When you effectively broaden and deepen, it not only enhances the story-telling: you better inform and educate your audience. Which, after all, is the point of serious, responsible journalism.