We remember the importance of face-to-face reporting » Nieman Journalism Lab


What new digital breakthrough does 2022 have in store for journalists? This year is actually gearing up to have more of a vintage flavor. With the Covid crisis still fresh, the spotlight is returning to the good old low-tech art of field reporting,

Nearly two years after a global health crisis forced newsrooms to improvise, getting back into the field and reigniting in-person interactions can be a challenge. Some journalists will tell you that they feel a little rusty. Others say it was easier to be protected by a screen to cover the misery of the world. Some will even admit that reporting from a sofa has its advantages – and, in terms of comfort, definitely beats the uncertainty of meeting anonymous sources in the field.

Technology makes it possible to produce more and more reports remotely — at a lower cost, from a business perspective. But there is a crucial need to return to the sources and events of the physical world. Only in real life is it possible to scan for any signal without being limited by the designated time slot for a call. If you’re distracted by a source’s background during a Zoom call, you might notice what’s happening on their desk or in the nearby hallway. Face-to-face reports save you the burden of frozen Facetime images on a bad connection. It might give you a glimpse of that almost imperceptible frown on your source’s face when you ask a question.

It’s hard to get to the truth. Getting to the bottom of an issue exclusively remotely seems an almost impossible task, even with the habit of a sedentary lifestyle imposed by curfews and lockdowns during Covid.

“When I was in Colombia to report the life and death of socialist leader Maritza Quiroz Leyva, I had to check with no less than six sources, realizing that these six people could, at any time, give me six versions different,” recalls French journalist Emilienne Malfatto. Margaux Benn, a journalist of dual French and Canadian nationality, had the same experience, where she had to consult 15 sources to verify information.

Being online adds more complexity. There is no hierarchy between people without an agenda, experts with an agenda, fake accounts, etc. Hate, fakes and data are a big mess; all the sources speak at the same level and at the same time. To understand the facts behind a story on Instagram or TikTok, an organic exchange, a real conversation, with all its in-person advantages, as well as its annoyances, is essential. In a recent presentation to Sciences Po students, Clarissa district, CNN’s chief international correspondent, compared an interview to a dance. “You have to be in the moment to listen to what a person is telling you – it’s a real engagement between two individuals, as opposed to one person reading a list of questions and making their best impression of what the Look at their body language and listen to them.

In 2022, as journalists struggle to distinguish between sincere ideas and dubious testimonials, getting back to the field is bound to come back into fashion.

Alice Antheaume is executive dean of the School of Journalism at Sciences Po in Paris.


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