18 May How to conduct a cross border story
or how three journalists put together a 10.000 character cross border feature story including a 5 min deep interview video, in a foreign country, in four days.
A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Oslo for the first time in my life. There I participated in a seminar organized by Nordic Press Association. I was part of a three member team working on a cross border feature story that covered Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. We had four days on us.
The three of us–me, Anni and Janne–didn’t know each other beforehand. We lived in three different cities, in two different countries. All of us had different backgrounds, experiences and skills. But the thing that we had in common was that we wanted to work on a story about city Sámis.
Before the seminar we tried to get a head start by arranging a Skype meeting but thanks to the bad internet connection we didn’t get very far. So when we met for the first time on an early Tuesday morning in Oslo, we introduced ourselves and asked “What’s next?”.
Looking now back to where we started from, our feature article had an end result none of us anticipated. Unfortunately the story isn’t available for you, yet. We are having discussions with media outlets for the story to be published and thus will keep the outcome of it a secret for now.
But what got us to results we didn’t dare to dream of is no secret. While working on a story like this, we took two things into account. Based on this experience these are the things that will make any cross border and cross cultural story worth the effort.
1) Working in a foreign environment makes you a newbie
What was clear from the very beginning for me, Anni and Janne was that our work would be affected by the fact that we were in a foreign country. No one of us was familiar with the Norwegian society or the city of Oslo, not to speak about the Sámis and their culture in Norway. Working in an environment like this and being a total newbie to everything feels like working on your first ever news story.
You hope you know what you are doing but in reality you are just grasping to anything that comes your way.
Working as a journalist in the country where you grew up in is easy because you are familiar with how the society works and what officials hold which information. Trying to adapt the logic of your home country to another country seems like a rational idea but unfortunately this technique doesn’t give you the information you are looking for. This I’ve noticed both while living in Sweden and this time also in Norway. Working in a foreign environment with officials you’ve never heard of, trying to get in contact with people that you don’t have name on, and asking the wrong questions because you don’t have enough information to ask the right ones challenges what you know and are able to do as journalist.
Frustrating? Yes. Slow? Yes, but there are ways to get things started.
The first to do is to make the first phone call, to get the first contact. Most likely you’ll end up calling a totally wrong person in a totally wrong organisation but hey, if they can’t help you they know someone who can. And so you are off to make the next phone call. And the next. And the next.
How easily you find the source of information you need depends of course on the topic you are working on. Sometimes you have to get creative and rethink your own way of thinking. It’s like searching the deep web: you can’t search directly the information you need. First you have to understand in what context that information lies. Do your background research.
Our city Sámi story’s biggest problem lied in that even though we were able to get in touch with Sámis quite easily, we had trouble finding young Sámis living in cities. Luckily, after several phone calls and digging through Norwegian and Sámi website trying to understand what little we could, we finally found our first desired contact: Dávvet and Alice, two Sámis in their twenties living in Oslo.
The two first days of our time Oslo had passed and the deadline was already lurking behind the corner.
2) Working on a cross cultural story makes you humble
Besides that we had trouble with the language and finding the right people to interview, the cross border aspect further slowed things down. Because Sámis live traditionally in the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia we wanted to take everything into account. Of course we would have managed with a narrower angle, but were ambitious.
While working on a cross border story, it is not enough that you know how things work in your home country and the country you are working in.
You need to have knowledge also about the countries and cultures surrounding you.
Different countries have different practises in collecting information, doing interviews and approaching people. What is as clear as daylight to a journalist in Finland–for example showing the interviewees citation to them before publishing the story–is an absolute no go for example in Spain.
Differences have to be taken into account also when approaching people. What is considered friendly and cheerful in Sweden, might seem over enthusiastic to a Russian. And what is straightforward and no-bullshit to a Finn, might seem like truculent to a Norwegian.
I believe that in normal everyday interaction it is the responsibility of all parties to have a will to understand each other. But when working as a journalist, we have to take a step away from what we know and adapt to the world of the people we want to work with. Not only is it a way to find trust but it is also a way to show respect.
One of our biggest concern in working on a story about city Sámis was the fact that we didn’t have real knowledge and understanding about Sámi culture. A burden of history was also laying on our shoulders as the main population and the Sámi population have a tumultuous past of forced assimilations and exploitation.
Our concern materialized when we made first contact with the city Sámi youngsters Dávvet and Alice. As we didn’t want to fall into the wolfpit of being an other news team making a story about “the exotic Sámis”, we paid much attention in showing our genuine interest. And to be able to do that, we had to know what we were talking about.
Doing background research on the topic you are working on and about the people you are interviewing should be a part of all journalistic work. At least that is what we as journalism students are taught. Nowadays unfortunately this is an ambition that is rarely put into action. But when doing a cross border and cross cultural article, this aspect is something that can not be overlooked.
I feel that working abroad as a journalist reveals the professional skills that one truly holds. What those skills are, I am not yet so familiar with that I could put a finger on it. But what is clear is that when you are stripped of the things you think you know, what you got left is what you can truly work with – no matter where you are or whom you work with.
Our feature story of city Sámis in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia will hopefully be published in the near future for all of you to read. When that happens, I promise to inform you about it here.