Why National Editors Should Connect with Local Reporters
Parachute reporting can damage community ties and miss the bigger picture.
We come. We report. We leave. This phenomenon, known as parachute reporting, isn’t new. “Politely, parachute journalism is the dispatching of globe-trotting reporters and camera crew…to cover the latest breaking news,” according to a 2002 Poynter article.
According to Eastern-Kentucky-based journalist Sarah Baird, “After you’ve been misquoted/misrepresented, it makes it harder to trust any journalist again—national or local.”
Baird recalled a 2018 article that she wrote about wrestling’s revival in her native Appalachia. One of her story’s main subjects, Kyle Maggard, told her about a prior sour experience with a national news outlet. “They cut up my interview pretty badly and made me look like a jackass,” Maggard told Baird. “These people spent all day with me, and the only line I said that they took is that ‘I wasn’t a big fan of coal.’"
Baird says: “In the case of parachute journalism, the national reporter is long gone, and the local reporter is still there working to tell the stories of their community while simultaneously trying to repair a relationship that they didn’t damage in the first place.”
Parachute Reporting’s Three Major Problems
This practice of journalists traveling to places to report on people or topics that they have little previous knowledge or experience with, where they’re unfamiliar with the local political and cultural landscapes, can lead to problems—especially for the community members engaged by these journalists.
When having to report quickly from a new community, you don’t have the luxury of time. We don’t always get it right the first time because we’re “new in town.”
Are we using the best possible sources to tell the story? Are we being diverse and inclusive in our considerations for who we’re including in our stories? Are we asking the best or most informed person or just who is closest and who’s available?
Do you have enough information to offer helpful new perspective or commentary on the issue, or am I just adding to the noise?
Harnessing the Power of Local Journalists
So, how do we use journalism to enhance community, as opposed to harming and detracting from it?
Baird believes that her new database, Shoeleather, may offer some solutions to combat parachute reporting. Announced on Twitter in September 2018, the database connects reporters outside of major coastal media hubs—New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco—with editors in those cities for reporting on their home regions.
“The thing about parachute reporting is that it lacks any context 99% of the time,” Baird told me. “Getting one percent of a story that deserves to be told 100% becomes dangerous for people in that community.”
Baird explained to me that she had seen this play out firsthand. After President Trump was elected, there was so much parachute journalism going on in the blue collar areas that helped put him in office, she said. Despite the rich diversity of Appalachia (which Baird actually wrote about for NPR in 2014) she said that out-of-work coal miners and opioid addiction dominated coverage of the area instead.
“Parachute reporting exacerbates distrust of media far more than anything else,” Baird said. “If the only thing reflected in the national newspaper about [Appalachians] is that they’re racist and redneck, they’re not speaking for me. They’re playing into a stereotype.”
Start Local, Stay Local
In January, Baird told me that there were over 1,000 reporters from the U.S. and U.S. territories in the Shoeleather database. She said that anecdotal feedback she’s received from editors using Shoeleather has been positive and suggests that they plan to continue to utilize the tool.
Baird makes two very compelling arguments for editors to tap the expertise of local reporters. The first is a matter of content.
“You’re going to get a better story [from a local reporter]. There’s no way the story won’t be better and more in depth because [they’ll] take into account things [a parachute reporter] wouldn’t have even thought about.”
The second reason? “It will save you money. You don’t have to buy someone a plane ticket or put them up in a hotel. You have an expert already on the ground.”
This approach has been used before, and it works. ProPublica is currently doing some great work with their Local Reporting Network which aims to support local and regional newsrooms as they work on investigative projects affecting their communities. And as other national media outlets’ reporters and camera crews withdrew from Ferguson, Missouri in the days after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in 2014, Huffington Post’s “Ferguson Fellow” stayed put to continue their coverage.
As part of the one-year crowdfunded position, a collaboration between HuffPo and the now-defunct Beacon Reader, St, Louis-based citizen journalist Mariah Stewart was able to shine a light from the inside out. Stewart, who had started by taking photos and interviewing people around a local gas station used as a protest rallying point, reported not just on the growing protests and activism in the community, but the state of the community itself.
Dana Amihere is data editor at KPCC, an NPR member station in Southern California. She’s a designer, developer and data journalist who has previously worked for The Dallas Morning News, The Baltimore Sun, and Pew Research Center.