It’s good that the BBC recognises the value of not just sending white, British journalists to cover the internal affairs of other countries. But why send an Africa reporter to cover Pakistan?
As monsoon rains were flooding Pakistan in July, and as tensions were rising between Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the coalition government, the BBC sent its South Africa correspondent, Pumza Fihlani, to report on these growing problems.
On July 30, 2022, after being deployed to Pakistan, she tweeted the following:
"Excited to share that I am in South Asia to work as the BBC's Pakistan Correspondent for a month. Looking forward to immersing myself and learning as much as possible from my colleagues and the most important element of any story - the people. Let's connect."
Pumza Fihlani has extensive experience in covering conflict, development, socio-economic and human interest issues in Africa for a local and an international audience. She also focuses on Southern African politics, as well as the region's difficulties and opportunities. Fihlani aims to coach and guide emerging journalists on the African continent across print, television and online platforms. This combination and her background skills must make her an ideal journalist for flood-affected and politically unstable Pakistan, right?
But doesn't this sound unusually odd? An African voice (instead of a white one this time) is representing Pakistan's internal narrative on a worldwide platform - for a month.
Now, we already know that following the tragic murder of George Floyd and the extraordinary circumstances surrounding COVID-19, the BBC and other major media organisations have prioritised diversity and inclusivity at the heart of their mission, with the aim of increasing the visibility of Black storytellers. But, a one-size-fits-all approach, is very disrespectful, and fails to recognise Pakistan's diverse identity.
As a Pakistani journalist living in the United Kingdom diaspora, I feel offended. We are not the same.
"When you fail to acknowledge the difference in people’s lived experience and history then people won’t feel like they count," wrote June Sarpong, BBC's Director of Creative Diversity in a report entitled: BAME We're Not the Same. Uncovering the nuance within ‘BAME'.
In this “think-piece” which examined the complex meaning of “BAME”, we are reminded to be more aware of homogeneous labels and stereotypes, and to acknowledge the cultural differences between ethnically diverse groups, across a historical, cultural, and social context. In this case, though, the BBC has blurred the line.
Isn't it obvious, BBC, that Pakistan and Africa are not the same? Each country faces unique challenges and conflicts. Each culture has its own set of values. It would be completely unheard of for a Pakistani journalist to be hired to report in Johannesburg or Gauteng. Imagine a journalist who cannot speak Swahili or Yoruba and who must rely solely on translators to report African stories for the BBC. That would lead to an endless amount of confusion.
There are plenty of great English-speaking local Pakistani journalists, British-Pakistani journalists and South Asia specialists who have a much more in-depth understanding of what's going on than someone who is an expert on the African continent. By assigning a non-native journalist, the work of Pakistani or South Asian journalists who may have previously contributed to the BBC is also overshadowed.
By depicting the people of Pakistan with a single brush stroke - in an African voice - the BBC appears to have taken a risk. The issue here is not the African voice, but rather the voice that has no experience of Pakistan.
A one-size-fits-all approach is very disrespectful and fails to recognise Pakistan's diverse identity
A month is also insufficient time to truly understand a place and report on it on a global scale. This is both risky and questionable journalism. When out-of-town journalists enter a country for a limited time to report on disasters and conflicts, it is known as parachute journalism or helicopter journalism.
Perhaps, the best way to define parachute journalism is through the eyes of a journalist. Jim Wooten, an American journalist for ABC News, describes it as: "One of those short-notice, short-term assignments that suddenly land a reporter in the thick of a crisis with little time for reflection."
In this way, the finished narrative will almost certainly paint a misleading picture of the people of Pakistan being covered, potentially intensifying existing fault lines within the community, while magnifying preconceptions and misunderstandings to a larger audience.
Danny Schechter, an American media critic, describes helicopter journalism as: "Outside-in reporting that accesses few if any sources in the country itself, does not speak the language, and does not explain much about what is going on. It's like the foreign correspondent who flies into a conflict zone for an afternoon and gets most of his information from a taxi driver."
When we evaluate this style of reporting, it raises questions about the credibility of the BBC's Pakistan flood stories, because the journalists' access to local sources, as well as their understanding of the local landscape, language, and context of the situation, would be limited.
Another aspect to consider is that, since the image of Africa in the Western media is often crisis-driven, helpless and colonial, how would the image of Pakistan be interpreted in the media when delivered by an African voice? I'm curious what perceptions an African would have of Pakistan? Would they be understood in light of the pre-existing media systematic stereotypes that portray Pakistan as one of the most disaster-stricken countries in the world? Many of the stories we read in the Western media today are created long before the journalist arrives. Even the most well-intentioned of us will arrive with preconceived questions and outcomes.
Most of Fihlani's reports depicted Pakistan and its people as hopeless, starving and poverty-stricken, deprived of basic necessities, with aid distribution practically impossible. One BBC report, for example, entitled Pakistan floods: Time running out for families in Sindh, emphasised that: "Delivering aid here is going to be a mammoth task."
While all this might be true to some extent, it doesn't address that there is an international aid call for Pakistan, with hundreds of organisations and individuals participating from across the world. Along with that, why not give more consideration and visibility to the relief that has already had a positive impact in other flood-affected areas of Pakistan, since this may provide hope that it will soon reach these areas as well?
Mainstream media misrepresents reality in the face of emergencies and crises, sometimes even causing a second wave of disaster
More importantly, why not include context about what these locations in Pakistan looked like before the floods? Surely, not all flood-affected victims were born in slums. Some of these sites were tourist spots. As a contrast to the coverage of flood-affected areas, Fihlani should share her thoughts about her first trip to a country which has some of the tallest mountains in the world, the best skiing conditions, pristine valleys, and a rich cultural history. It would also be worth mentioning that Pakistan is the world's fourth largest cotton producer, and the floods have ruined such export items and endangered the country's trade. In this way, the narrative would appear more balanced, because Pakistan is more than just a disaster; it also operates as a country.
Writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit, in her essays published in the Encyclopaedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, explains how mainstream media misrepresents reality in the face of emergencies and crises, sometimes even causing a second wave of disaster.
She mentions the Los Angeles Times as an example, which published a sequence of photographs with captions that featured the word "looting" many times during the 2010 Haitian earthquake. One such caption stated: “A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated milk.” Solnit wonders if the man with the milk is truly a criminal? He could have been carrying milk to starving babies buried behind debris. What would you do if your city was destroyed by a natural disaster, your money was gone, and your child was starving?
A distance bias exists in disaster and conflict reporting. There is a significant distance between the country where the BBC media is based - where its journalist is from - and the country where the disaster occurred.
In a book-length essay entitled Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag, an American writer, states that: "Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialised tourists known as journalists."
This is not at all to say that African or other non-native journalists are merely tourists who lack the ability of reporting on foreign regions. Some non-native journalists truly do their homework and take the time to fully understand a location. For example, reporters like Christina Lamb, Britain's leading foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, continue to cover countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Africa. She is a prime example of how it’s possible for non-natives to enter unfamiliar communities for longer periods of time, gain trust, provide critical insights and become a respected reporter on the issues taking place.
In an interview with the British Council, Lamb talks about the skills and qualities needed to be a foreign correspondent:
Isn't it obvious, BBC, that Pakistan and Africa are not the same?
"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.
"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.
"Good reporters have to observe details that bring home the scene."
Lamb also stresses the importance of language: "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."
This raises the question of how long a foreign journalist should spend in a country before they are well-prepared to report about it globally?
A study entitled Better Foreign Correspondence Starts At Home: Changing Practice Through Diasporic Knowledge, published on Taylor and Francis by Chrisanthi Giotis and Christopher Hall, on May 25, 2021 in the Journalism Practice journal, addresses the novel approaches required to better prepare foreign journalists for their assignments. With this purpose in mind, the Frame Reflection Interview (FRI) was developed as a new journalistic research technique. The FRI enables reporters to get an in-depth understanding of the target country's social surroundings in a short period of time. The study outlines the findings of a pilot investigation using this method, in which a correspondent intending to report from Jakarta accessed members of the Indonesian diaspora in Sydney before departing.
To minimise repeating biases, effective reporting requires accurate representations and a long-term strategy. Local or diaspora journalists should be collaborated with and credited alongside foreign or non-native journalists, so that they can tell their own stories. The helicopter journalism model brings systematic bias into disaster reporting, which may have a negative impact on the perceptions of the region and its people, as well as the flow of aid.
Anam Hussain is a freelance diaspora journalist born in Lahore, Pakistan, and now based in the UK
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance