SPJVPA16: So you want to be an international reporter?

By Janeal Downs

From taking adventurous trips to the grocery store in China to covering the ravages of war in Afghanistan, top journalists shared their experiences as international reporters during a panel at the VPA/SPJ Region 2 Conference.

David Lynch, a correspondent in the Washington bureau of the Financial Times, and Paul Wiseman, an international economics writer for The Associated Press, explained how they find and report stories abroad. The session was moderated by Suzanne McBride, an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago who has been a Fulbright scholar in Ireland and a lecturer in Thailand.

“Every aspect of life when you’re living abroad is kind of an adventure,” Lynch said.

He described being a London correspondent for USA Today as impactful not only for him but for his family as well. He and Wiseman, who also worked for USA Today, discussed the importance of separating work from other responsibilities and taking breaks.

“I felt obligated to work all the time,” Wiseman said. “Finally a little voice in my head said, ‘Yo, dude – take a day off.’”

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David Lynch, Suzanne McBride and Paul Wiseman (Photo by Janeal Downs)

Both Wiseman and Lynch have extensive international experience.

Lynch, who has a master’s degree in international relations from Yale University, has reported from more than 50 countries. He was the founding bureau chief in both London and Beijing for USA Today, covered the war in Kosovo and embedded with the U.S. Marines during the war in Iraq.

Wiseman was based in Hong Kong as USA Today’s Asia correspondent from 1998 to 2009. Among other stories, he covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Asian financial crisis, political upheaval in Pakistan and the tsunami that slammed Indonesia in 2004.

Lynch and Wiseman offered their advice to young journalists who want to be international reporters. They told aspiring foreign correspondents to avoid dangerous hotspots like Syria and Iraq, where many journalists have been killed. Instead, Lynch and Wiseman recommended going to parts of the world that are safer but not widely covered, such as Turkey, Vietnam or countries in Africa.

Wiseman said he found two places in the world where you could just walk down the street and find a story – China and Bangkok.

“There’s no recipe” to breaking into the international reporting field, Lynch said. He and Wiseman recommended starting with freelance work or reaching out to English-language papers abroad.

The panelists urged college journalists to learn different languages, especially ones not largely spoken by U.S. reporters, such as Chinese, Arabic or Hindi.

The Fulbright program, funded by the U.S. government, is another resource for traveling. Just as Fulbright funds scholars like McBride to do research or teach abroad, it also funds students and recent graduates to travel to other countries.

“I know of a number of students over the years who have pursued Fulbright as a way to become foreign correspondents,” McBride said. “I think in this day and age, with news outlets not devoting as much money to bureaus outside of the U.S., it’s another way to do it on your own.”

Young people also can gain international experience by enrolling in study-abroad programs and by joining the U.S. Peace Corps.

Although many newspapers have closed their foreign bureaus, some new-media companies – such as Buzzfeed and Vice – are increasing their international reporting efforts. Moreover, a lot of news organizations, both traditional and emerging, may be interested in reports from freelance journalists abroad, the panelists said. Participants at the session noted that SPJ has a network to help freelance journalists.

News organizations aren’t the only groups that need international journalists. So do organizations that monitor human rights situations around the world, Lynch said. Such groups hire researchers with journalistic skills who can interview people and write about the problems they face.