For Reporters Roving the World, Do Your Homework and Take a Deep Breath

July 15, 2010

By NAOMI LUBICK

"Tools of the trade and foreign currency, taken on the tacky bedspread in my hotel in Lilongwe, Malawi." Dale Willman.
Photo © Dale Willman.

Dale Willman has some travel stories that might make your toes curl — like the time he unwittingly snapped photos of an army installation in Zambia and was nearly detained, an eight-hour drive from the nearest U.S. embassy, on a Friday afternoon.

Or another mistaken photo incident — this photo not actually snapped — when an airport official in Rwanda nearly confiscated his camera, long before 9/11 had made Americans leery of taking photos in airports.

Despite these negative experiences, Willman is always excited to report abroad, which he has done for CNN and CBS Radio. He recently received a Fulbright scholarship to go to Indonesia for 10 months to teach local journalists about environmental reporting; he has also taught in Zambia and Malawi.

I asked for tips from Willman and some other journalists who travel internationally to do their reporting. They all suggested that before you set off on your voyage, you have to be prepared — mentally, technically, and physically.

"You have to understand that things are off limits in other countries that you never expected," Willman said, recalling that the armed military men in Zambia accused him of being a terrorist. "It's easy to fall back on stereotypes," or the clicheÅLs that help a reporter cover breaking news fast at home, Willman added. While traveling abroad, "You have to break those habits to understand and accurately report."

But before you can report, you have to prepare to go. Willman starts with a checklist, according to what he might need from his kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and so on. He and other reporters advise packing light, and suggest using light travel backpacks and other gear that will keep you comfortable. Some little tricks also help, like stuffing socks and underwear into empty spaces in your shoes. Tightly rolling your clothes takes less room; compression straps will compact them more, Willman says. He tries to take the bare minimum, and expects to do laundry with hand soap at some point.

As a radio reporter, Willman has found he can record directly to his computer for podcasts. And as technology has shrunk, he buys smaller devices such as flip camcorders and mini audio recorders that produce relatively high-quality files. Larger flashcards to store that information also have become cheaper. Redundancy is key, he says. Willman brings extra inexpensive thumb drives with several gigabytes of memory, and this fall, he will pass them on as gifts to the journalism students he will be teaching in Indonesia.

Willman also raves about the Kindle: the relatively light electronic reader can transport a stack of books and research papers in its compact frame. And for all of these electronics, Willman also packs extra power: converters for plugs all over the world, a rechargeable battery pack (newer chargers can handle from 100 to 250 volts), and a package of batteries he might need for his recording equipment. (One suggestion for where to find converters is travel specialty store Magellan's I am tempted by portable solar battery chargers, which look like rollable photovoltaic sheets, but I haven't tried them myself and they remain expensive.

But it's not the technology that makes the story. Research is key for preparing to understand your destination and to cover the story, Willman said. Definitely call and email potential sources before you go, if only to confirm that they will not be on vacation when you show up.

Willman's most successful strategy: contact researchers close to home to find out if they have relationships with local research institutions or universities abroad. While searching for possible environmental stories in Malawi, Willman called a scientist at a university near his home in upstate New York. He serendipitously stumbled upon someone trying to establish a research center with local scientists in Monkey Bay, on Lake Malawi, "exactly where I was going," Willman said of one of his trips.

What made the U.S./Malawi research connection even more surprising is the fact that Monkey Bay is not exactly a bustling place. Willman emphasized that if you are traveling to such remote locations, be ready to be out of touch.

The last reporting trip abroad that I took was in relatively wellnetworked Spain. But when my source and I reached a remote part of the island of Mallorca, cell phone coverage was scarce, and I had no email or Internet access. But my source was plugged in with his iPhone and able to find weather information and email when he had an adequate signal.

I do not have an iPhone, and that connectivity might have helped me: my trip ended as the eruption of the Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajökull began, diverting flights and closing airports across Europe. I did not know about it until I got to the airport the afternoon of my departure.

I was lucky — my flight took off without a hitch. But had I been stranded in Mallorca, I may have faced difficulties: I found out when I got home that my credit card company was on the verge of cutting off my card because I had neglected to alert them that I would be traveling abroad. I had extra euro notes, which came in handy, especially when I was not near an ATM or in a place where credit cards were accepted (and many places, even in developed countries, still consider credit cards outside the norm).

In isolated locations, self-reliance is important. Often you cannot rely on an embassy, so make sure you have contact information for a local person if possible. And stay calm and aware: all the skills you use to observe a story also might keep you safe. Sometimes, your journalist's eye will catch a menacing situation, giving you time to think ahead about how to defuse any difficulties. And if you can't calm things down before they happen, staying relaxed may help you deal carefully and safely with whatever comes up.

Being aware that a different culture may react to certain behaviors very differently than your own helps, as does accepting the validity of that different value system — at least for the moment. After Willman snapped his picture of the military base in Zambia, he was quickly surrounded by men in army fatigues, upset and ready to prove their power against an interloping American.

As soon as he realized he could not understand what the military men were saying, Willman quickly asked another bus passenger to be his translator. The boy was bullied by the armed men, and Willman had to step in to say forcefully that he had asked the boy to translate. It was a tough few hours, and he could barely hold back his frustration, Willman told me during a recent Skype conversation.

Eventually, his group was allowed to continue their trip to the Mfweh Preserve. When they were safely down the road, Willman couldn't help himself: He flipped the military installation an American bird, to let off some steam — but only when he was out of sight.

See more of Willman's travels here.

More advice from other roving reporters I queried:

  • Travel insurance might be helpful if you need medical care or you need to rearrange your travel plans on short notice. You can sometimes get a basic evacuation policy from your primary health insurance, which may be worth the extra yearly fee particularly if you are traveling in a place where you do not trust local hospitals to give you adequate treatment.
  • If you have prescription drugs or even vitamins that you take regularly, make sure you get extra doses. And do not check them — ever! Also, take a prescription from a doctor to use at a local pharmacy, if needed. Bring extra antibiotics, generic painkillers, diarrhea meds, etc.
  • Tell your credit card companies your itinerary and for how long you will be traveling. Otherwise, they may assume your credit card has been stolen, and refuse to authorize charges.
  • Learn a little of the language and do not assume that most people can speak English (unless you are heading to the UK).
  • See if the local tourist office can place you in a private home, or find friends of friends to meet for coffee or a city tour. It's good to meet people outside of your work.
  • Find out about the status of journalists in the country you are visiting, as some places may have different ideas about free speech and press. That could have implications for speaking to sources, taking photos and recording tape, and what kind of official documentation you might need.
  • Bring business cards and a letter from your editor stating that you are a journalist, to demonstrate credibility.
  • Check the status of your passport, and find out what the rules are for visas and passport validity for the country you plan to visit (sometimes your passport must have an expiration date at least six months into the future in order to be admitted to the country). Leave copies of your paperwork (passport, visa, credit cards, etc.) at home with someone you know you can reach should you need them.
  • If you decide you need a translator, visit journalism job boards and your alumni organizations (college, graduate school) to see if people have contacts or have hired fixers or translators where you are going. Consider hiring a local university student, as often they have good enough language skills and interesting perspectives.
  • Consider buying or renting a local cell phone, or buy a phone that can take a pre-paid local SIM card — your sources are more likely to call you back on a local number, and pay as-you-go can be cheaper than paying overseas cell phone charges. Skype does not work in Zambia, for example, though you might be able to use it to stay in touch in places with a good Internet connection.
  • You might want to bring little gifts. A geologist I know brings erasers and pencils to her field site in Nepal, as well as small plastic rulers. Willman's gift of thumbdrives may seem expensive, but it's very useful, and one of my reporter colleagues says she wishes she had a Polaroid camera, so she could snap photos and immediately share them with her subjects in Bolivia.
  • Some things are going to take a lot longer than you expect, and you have to adapt to the idea that you're on a journey, not on a schedule. And remember, local customs — like siesta hour — can throw off your travel schedule or your sources' schedules.
  • Take lots of photos, write down people's names, and try to record notes on local color and your thoughts on your experiences as they happen, as much as possible. You never know what might prove useful for a story once you get home, and you may not have the chance to get back to fact check the name of the local farmer you met on your way.
  • Most important: ENJOY! Getting paid to travel for your work and to report abroad is an amazing benefit of being a journalist.

Freelance journalist Naomi Lubick is based in Zurich and Folsom, Calif., but is about to move to Stockholm, where she will continue to cover environmental scientists' research.  She has written for Environmental Science & Technology, Nature , Science and Eath (formerly know as Geotimes), among other publications .  Read some of her published work at www.naomilubick.com, or about her reporting adventures at her blog, www.naomilubick.wordpress.com

* From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2010 issue 

By NAOMI LUBICK