OPINION: Parachute journalism and lightning fieldwork

Tin Bartolome

Posted at Apr 21 2017 01:29 PM

This is not about journalism. I just had to define what I am about to participate in (against my will, of course) because it seems so much like parachute journalism.

When I started writing for television more than thirty years ago, the only form of communication available to us were handheld radios and landlines. We needed to develop relationships with news sources and gain their trust—we needed to know them! Producing features required more intimacy with our sources and “clearances” at that time. This meant being honest with them to gain their trust. It also entailed listening and making sure we did not pre-judge them. But even then, many reporters would simply tell the stories, assuming they are objective, forgetting that their own awareness and biases inevitably taint their reports!

Parachute Journalism Defined

Parachute journalism means assigning reporters to places they hardly know and pressuring them to come up with breaking news! Bill Mitchell and 2001 Poynter Ethics Fellow Marjie Lundstrom wrote: “And so it is in journalism today, where intense media competition and 'round-the-clock deadlines have made for some disturbingly predictable and often distorted accounts of places and the people who live there… A new reality, one even the natives can scarcely recognize.” 

And, as pointed out, the story is passed off as “definitive”, so people who did not know a thing about the place would take it as true and accurate!

Lightning Fieldwork

What is “Lightning Fieldwork”? I just thought of giving what I am about to engage in a name. I will be part of a group that will go to a community we hardly know and conduct a sneak preview—an excerpt of a module we are required to put together. We will be meeting the participants only on the day itself, with only a vague idea of who they are, their age range and where they live. We only have the morning session, so there is very little time for processing. Like lightning, we will be seen and heard—but only briefly and we cannot give any assurance that whatever issues crop up can be processed—unless we go back after we have gotten our grades.

I feel ambivalent about the whole thing mainly because I know nothing about the people I will meet. There is a strong possibility that they will feel that we simply took their time—“feeling used” as a friend put it—if we are not able to connect (for lack of information). It’s like giving Band-aid to people who may have bullet wounds or whose limbs have been amputated. I feel this way because years ago, the nongovernment organization I worked for was very careful about which alternative income-generating projects to implement because previous experience showed that if the community did not “own” the project, it will not be sustainable.

And so I write this out of frustration. Perhaps because there is a need to get a good grade and pass the course, we forget that one of the most important things we need to learn and develop is empathy. We cannot empathize without knowing their story first.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.