17 اردیبهشت 1392

Is Behind-the-Desk Journalism Viable?

7 May 2013

Reported by Sara Mohseni

Translated by Rose Arjmand

Khabarnegaran.info –Journalism from behind the desk is often berated at first glance and seen as calamity by veteran journalists and academic professors, who believe that journalism means only when done out in the field. But is it always possible to report the subjects closely in the field? Are working conditions and news coverage the same for all reporters? Should one expect journalists to follow and report the news closely under repressive circumstances?

In Iran, for years, the repressive sociopolitical circumstances had made it impossible for reporters to show up themselves and watch the subjects closely in the field. As a result, news coverage in Iran has transformed into a new form of reporting: behind-the-desk or distance journalism.

Many Iranian journalists who have left the country during the past years have to follow up the subjects and news from their news desks, far away from Iran. Similarly, many local journalists sometimes have to report news without being present in the field, because of security reasons and the possibility of getting arrested.

This article draws on experiences and ideas of several local and foreign journalists about behind-the-desk journalism and e-reporting.

Journalism Is Analytical Work

“Do you consider yourself a journalist from behind the desk?” I ask a journalist who writes under a pseudonym in Iran. “No, this is a common misconception,” he says. “Basically, a part of journalistic work is to do qualitative and quantitative analysis of data and news. First, we have to see what the main idea is, and then we can choose what tools are required to make a report without going to the location of subject.”

“For instance, sometimes, I work on economic subjects. There is no need to go to a place. With classification of data and statistics, I can write an analytical report. I even can use descriptive diagrams to frame the concept better,” he explains.

“Of course,” he adds an exception, “undeniably, interviews or even getting to a place in person are necessary for particular subjects when more information is needed.” He then tells how he can go into the society and talks with people about down-to-earth subjects such as inflation without introducing himself as a reporter.

Journalism Need to Survive Even Behind the Desk

More and more journalists have been leaving Iran over the past years, many of them now working for foreign-based Persian media. Most of these media are not allowed to work inside Iran, while news and issues related to Iran are the topics of interest to them. So how their reporters can write their stories from thousands of kilometers away? BehrouzSamadbeygi is one of these journalists. He left Iran two years ago and now writes, gathers news and makes interviews for Rooz Online internet news website.

I ask Behrouzabout his behind-the-desk journalistic experience after emigrating from Iran. “You and I are talking via internet; probably, both from behind our desks,” then as he tries to explain me, he asks me, “Are you a behind-the-desk journalist who is writing a story about behind-the-desk journalism from behind your desk?” My answer is a definite no.

“If you and I are capable to gather information and write stories in accordance with the standards of journalism, and not necessarily the ideals of journalism, then it is not important whether we are doing it from behind our desks or reporting it from the heart of an event,” he suggests.

Internet Shortens Distances

Some veteran journalists believe that modern technologies such as internet and social networking have intensified behind-the-desk journalism.

Expert journalists are those who use social networking websites for gathering information, but make stories that cannot be found similar by Google, says Rebecca Mackinnon, former CNN journalist in an interview with IJNet.

Behrouz says that he is well aware of criticisms of veteran journalists and academic professors, but he has no way. “Our media is not allowed to have a reporter in Iran. It cannot contact with journalists inside the country either, because they may face security charges. So how are we supposed to make stories about daily subjects?”

He then explains how he gets access to opinions of people from the comment section of Iranian-based news agencies and websites. Although that comments may be altered, deleted or spammed, Behrouz thinks that they give him a good assessment of situation.

Hardships of e-Reporting

EhrshadAlijani is another journalist who had left Iran two years ago and now works for the Persian section of Radio France Internatinale (RFI).

I ask him about what he thinks about behind-the-desk journalism. “First, I have to clarify that even when I was in Iran, I rarely did in-the-field journalism. This was because I used to work for Foreign Policy news desk there,” he answers.

“Now in RFI, if needed, I refer to Iranian-based news websites, check social networking sites or ask my friends there,” he adds. “Of course, sometimes I can leave my desk for covering up news related to Iran that occur in Europe, for example, I went to UN human rights meeting in Geneva and prepared a story.”

One of the challenges of e-reporting, he states, is that news and information are needed to be confirmed by several sources. “Also, in social networking sites, I know that information gathered, which are often circulated by and among middle class, has an error rate,” he explains.

Reporting in London from Tehran

NikiMahjoub, a journalist who works for Persian section of BBC website, has recently written a story about child labor in Iran, starting with a quote from a Tehrani citizen.

“Writing such a feature story is very difficult,” she repeats “very difficult, when you can’t be in Iran, but have to make a in-the-field story, it shows that you have a difficult job to do. On the other hand, I have been brought up and lived in Iran. That makes it easier for me make up the setting of the story.”

I ask her how much she is certain of the accuracy of people’s sayings. “This depends on the type of relationship that you have with individuals,” she answers. “Facebook, Twitter and telephone calls can be one way, but the most reliable one is to ask your trusted friends.”

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