This commentary is an excerpt from the author’s new book, Byline: How Local Journalists Can Improve the Global News Industry and Change the World, and has been edited for republication.
Who tells the story matters. It has always mattered, but today it matters to readers more than ever before. It matters because people are hungry to see and understand the world differently.
Instead of parachuting into global communities to find the most pitiful cases, journalists can provide a platform for a more proximate version of events. Instead of relying on stereotypes and stale narratives, we can allow local journalists to tell us the stories we most need to hear. We can employ more translators. We can share credit with fixers. And we can protect our truth tellers — the ones who risk their own physical and mental health so we have the opportunity to better understand the world. And in doing all of this, we can also prove to our audience that we deserve another chance with their trust.
Global Press, the nonprofit news organization I founded in 2006, trains and employs local women journalists in some of the world’s least-covered places. We now operate more than 40 independent newsrooms from Mexico to Mongolia.
Fixing the news, especially the international coverage that Global Press set out to improve 17 years ago, has felt like an intractable problem for so long. But the road to a prosperous, trustworthy and respected journalism industry is not as impassable as many assume. There is a clear path forward, and a role for each of us to play along the way.
In Global Press’ 2022 U.S. audience research so many people said that the news felt like a black box. The inner workings seemed completely inscrutable, and readers felt powerless to do anything about improving the quality of output.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. News consumers have more power in this relationship than they believe, and they should feel emboldened to ask questions and hold news publications accountable.
When readers see low-quality reporting, often their first instinct is to tune out or turn the page. But going forward, readers will have to take a more active role in their news consumption. If you see a pattern of poor reporting or read an article that doesn’t pass the smell test, say something.
In August 2021, a man named Michael Stoler wrote to Kelly McBride, public editor of NPR, who acts as a liaison between the public and the news organization on questions of ethics and accuracy.
Hello, I really wish NPR reporters would stop using the term “mud huts.” I’m not sure what it means. I don’t see how one can make a hut out of mud. Do they mean a sort of adobe, used in many places throughout the world, or brick? The reporters seem to use the term to describe the dwellings of people in developing countries, and it suggests the most primitive sort of shelter in a condescending, even demeaning, way. Would they describe the citizens of trendy Santa Fe as living in “mud huts”?
McBride investigated his request, searching for NPR’s recent usage of the term and reached out to a variety of language experts, including me, to get our take on Stoler’s claims.
My response was emphatic: Stoler was right. In an interview for McBride’s newsletter, I said that when a journalist uses that term they are “describing either an impoverished area or an area that lacks infrastructure, without actually saying that.” The term “mud huts” implies poverty without proving it. International journalism is filled with such imprecise words that lead readers to the assumption of poverty.
Stoler’s simple act of questioning a word choice — and writing a few sentences to McBride — caused a whole news organization to evaluate its word choice.
I know many burnt out journalists who say changing standards and practices in their newsrooms just feels impossible. They don’t control style guides or approve budgets. They are stuck in the grind.
I hear that. But there are still small, significant ways journalists can advocate for more equitable news practices that can increase trust in all reporting.
Word choice reinforces worldview. That means journalists have tremendous power to influence the way people understand the world.
International media is replete with euphemisms, imprecise phrases that imply poverty, limit agency and lead readers to make assumptions about people and places.
When we use terms like “Global South,” it’s intended more as a sanitized synonym for poverty than a description of geography. Such terms signal to our readers that the place in question isn’t important because it doesn’t deserve precise recognition. Billions of people across multiple continents can all be swept together as poor and of less consequence with the use of that phrase. Similarly, phrases like “ethnic tension” tell readers that they don’t need to trouble themselves with the specifics; it’s just another story about people “over there” killing each other.
In Global Press’s 2021 audience research, no participant in a national survey could correctly define the phrase “Global South.” In the absence of a definition, people had vast assumptions about what it meant and what it signaled about the people who live “there.”
As journalists, we can always aim for more precise word choices. We can flex that muscle to sense when we are using descriptive details about people overseas that we’d never use at home, like defining a professional woman by the number of children she has.
One of the best tricks to improve dignity in writing is to avoid labels. “Victim,” “survivor,” “inmate,” “immigrant” — each of these words carries a heavy weight of associations, assumptions, and prejudices. By describing a person’s actions rather than identity, we can better ensure that the source is described in dignified terms, in a way that would allow them to recognize themselves in the story.
People in the U.S. know very little about Mongolia — and with some good reason. Because it’s remote and one of the least populated countries in the world, Mongolia rarely makes the evening news.
But when newsroom leaders make an effort to connect global events for their audiences, often by leveraging the work of local reporters, extraordinary things can happen.
In June 2021, Khorloo Khukhnokhoi, a Global Press reporter in Mongolia, began investigating virginity testing in high schools around the country. This horrific practice — and its ubiquity — would have been news enough, but there was more to the story. Khorloo found that the girls in these schools were fighting back.
After her story was published in both English and Mongolian, the government responded, issuing a regulation saying the practice should stop. While many celebrated, Khorloo remained skeptical. She went back the next school year to see if the practice had indeed ended. It hadn’t.
As we prepared to publish a follow-up story in the early summer of 2022, I had the opportunity to meet Sara Just, EP of PBS NewsHour — one of the most respected evening news shows in the U.S. In a mutual friend’s living room, I detailed Khorloo’s reporting and the stories she had uncovered.
When I asked Just if she’d be interested in featuring the story on NewsHour she said, “Yes.”
In my many years of leading Global Press, U.S. broadcast partnerships have been nearly impossible to come by. Typically, the answer I receive is a polite “No.” And in truth, I had expected the same from Just.
A “no” would have made sense in this circumstance. First of all, finding minutes on the evening news for a story about Mongolia is extremely difficult. Second, the visuals of a story about virginity testing didn’t exactly lend themselves to evening television. And third, Khorloo doesn’t speak English. Reasons like these are why I hear “no” so often.
But for newsroom leaders who want to offer their audiences a different kind of international journalism, “no” isn’t the right answer. Thankfully, Just agreed.
“Yes, it’s challenging to do a story on a sensitive topic. Yes, it’s a challenge to do a story without an English-speaking reporter involved. Yes, it’s a challenge to do a story from so far away,” Just told me. “But those are not insurmountable challenges when you have a good story to tell.”
Just’s “yes” turned out to be a very important one.
The piece, produced through a collaboration with Global Press Journal and broadcast in June 2022, was a hit with viewers, did well on social media and was shared around the world. Just a few months after the piece aired, the Mongolian government responded again. On International Day of the Girl in October 2022, the government took to Facebook, their primary communication tool with their citizens, to officially ban the practice.
To date, Khorloo says the ban is truly in effect.
It may have been difficult for Just to say “yes” to this story, but that one word made a huge difference in the lives of girls across Mongolia. And newsroom leaders have the ability to replicate this over and over again — simply by choosing to say “yes” to the next great piece a local journalist puts on their desk.
Global Press’ research on U.S. audiences and the emerging research of many others suggest that people want to better understand the world, and they want better international news.
At PBS NewsHour, that demand is clear. “We keep hearing from our audiences — both television and certainly our online and social media audiences — that they want more foreign coverage,” Just said.
And finding local partners is a great way to give people what they want.
The incredible women of Global Press, and the thousands of world-changing stories they’ve told over the years, prove that local journalists can and should take the lead. They show us time and again that proximity and access yield extraordinary stories — and that the name on the byline truly matters.
Cristi Hegranes is CEO and publisher of Global Press, a nonprofit news organization she founded in 2006 to create a new model for international journalism led by women reporting from their local communities. Their news coverage is published by Global Press Journal. Cristi’s book, Byline: How Local Journalists Can Improve the Global News Industry and Change the World, was published this month by Advantage Media Group/Forbes Books.