By Christina Lamb

12 July 2019 - 10:40

Christina Lamb
'We carried a little kit that we used to take phone sockets apart. It had crocodile clips and wire, and we'd wait for a buzzing sound that meant we had a connection.' Photo ©

courtesy Christina Lamb

Author and Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Times Christina Lamb tells us what makes an effective reporter. 

How did you become a foreign correspondent?

interviewed Benazir Bhutto in Afghanistan on the day she announced her engagement. She went back to Pakistan, and I went to Birmingham as a trainee journalist, where I covered the local news. There was a beautiful, gold-embossed invitation to her wedding in Pakistan waiting for me.

At the end of each day's wedding ceremonies, she and her team would gather in her house to talk about political strategy. I was around people not much older than me who had been teargassed, arrested and tortured, all to get rid of the general running the country.

I couldn’t imagine going back to cover the local news after that, so I gave my notice at work, and went to live and work in Pakistan. 

What skills and qualities do you need to be a foreign correspondent?

Curiosity is the most important quality for a foreign correspondent.

Determination to get into a place is also important, because you’re often going to places where you’re not wanted.

Being a good listener helps too. You want people to tell you their story.

The technical side of our work has changed a lot. When I first went to Pakistan, I had a word processor. It had a small screen with three lines, and it was green text on a green screen. That was the height of technology.

When I started reporting, it was very difficult getting stories back to our editors. We carried a little kit that we used to take phone sockets apart. It had crocodile clips and wire, and we'd wait for a buzzing sound that meant we had a connection and could communicate.

In some ways, the job was more technical back then, because most of our work was logistics.

It's rare now to not have a mobile connection. However, I just came back from Zimbabwe, where there are 18-hour power cuts. That's challenging, but in some ways it focuses you to get a story out quickly.

I work with translators and fixers in some places, but if you can learn a few words of a language, it makes a difference. It's what you should do when you're in someone's country.

A lot of your work relies on a personal narrative to tell a wider story. How do you get people to tell you those stories?

Just talk to them, and listen. Most people seem happy to tell me their story, and it's easier for readers to relate to news through a narrative.

Often, I'm writing about places that have little relevance to my readers. I need to make them care, and the best way is to find a compelling story.

Journalists have a responsibility to not misrepresent the people who speak to us. Sometimes, we change names to protect people's safety, while some people – activists for example – are happy to be identified in the media. 

Now, people can search for you online. It's good most of the time, because people can see that you're respected and trusted.

Other times, it means losing a story. Recently, I think a person googled me and realised that I'd been critical of the regime he is a part of, and so he didn't speak to me.

How would a new journalist without a significant online profile get someone to talk to them?

Your manner is important, and so is the ability to reassure the people who talk to you of what you'll do with the information. They need to know that you won't twist their words or put them in a difficult position.

I've had stories that I didn't publish, because it would have damaged a contact. Sometimes, you might have a great story, but it means that no one will trust you again in that place. I tend to go back to the same places a lot, and I need people to trust me.

I had an editor who, during the editing process, left out a paragraph, which made it look like the wrong person had been arrested. I was mortified and the person in the article was very annoyed, rightly so.

That's one of the dangers of job cuts; there aren't the staff to check these things.

How do you tell accurate, culturally-sensitive stories about conflict affected parts of the world when you and many of your readers are from a more privileged part of the world?

I don't believe that any journalist is objective, because we're always looking at things through the prism of where we've grown up and how we've grown up.

The way to get around that is by talking to as many people as possible in the place you're reporting from, to try and grasp their situation.

I didn't grow up in a privileged background here in England. I didn't experience the level of poverty in Zimbabwe, where I've just been, but I know what it's like to not have things. That helps me to understand. 

There are some pejorative words and stereotypes that people use thoughtlessly, which I avoid. The 'dusty village', for example. 

I like it when people tell a story inventively. 

I've covered some countries for years, including Afghanistan. Sometimes, a person who hardly knows the place will go and write a story, and I'll notice things that I haven't thought about for a long time; for example, about a postman in Kabul, where there are no addresses. 

What is the difference between reporting and writing a full-length book?

Good reporters have to observe details that bring home the scene.

I was interviewing people in Zimbabwe recently, where people who were once middle-class are now living in extreme poverty. I visited a teacher who has a house and a working stove, but doesn't have the fuel to run it, and so she cooks on a fire outside. That's the kind of detail that works well. 

Being a good reporter doesn't necessarily mean you'll be a good writer. There are a lot of people who are good at reporting but not writing, or vice versa. 

In books, you get to go into more detail. I like nothing better than having a blank screen, but I also love the news; being somewhere where something is happening, and finding a way to tell people about it.

Watch Christina's talk A life in foreign correspondence on Facebook Live from Future News Worldwide 2019 on 16 July at 11.30 (UK time). 

Follow @christinalamb on Twitter.

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