10 Tips for Becoming a Foreign Correspondent

Sep 8, 2012   //   by Rachele Kanigel   //   Blog, International Reporting  //  No Comments
Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University. She directed ieiMedia projects in Jerusalem (2013), Perpignan (2010 and 2011) and Urbino (2009) and taught reporting in Cagli in 2007. In 2015 she will teach in ieiMedia's mulitimedia reporting program in Urbino.

Foreign correspondent. It’s hard to come up with a job title quite as romantic and full of intrigue. The very words conjure images of steamy exotic locales from The Year of Living Dangerously or some Graham Greene novel.

Being a foreign correspondent isn't necessarily as romantic as it was for Mel Gibson who played a naive Australian reporter in 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously.

The truth is reporting overseas is hard, challenging work that requires preparation. Here are some tips for journalism students and young journalists who aspire to become the next Anthony Shadid or Christiane Amanpour.

  1. Learn a foreign language — or two, or three. Interpreters are great, but being able to interview people in their own tongue is always best. And even if you aren’t fluent enough to conduct interviews in a language, knowing some words always helps. Best languages for foreign reporters: Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, French and Russian.
  2. Read voraciously. Read everything you can get your hands on — newspapers, magazines, websites, books, even novels. The more you read, the more you understand other places and cultures. Extensive reading is also bound to improve your writing.
  3. See the world. Even before you set up shop as a foreign correspondent take every opportunity you can to travel — family trips, vacations, conferences in foreign cities — but go beyond the tourist attractions. Seek out out-of-the-way places where you’ll have an easier time engaging with real people. Ask lots of questions wherever you go; soak up as much information as you possibly can. You never know what tidbits of information may come in handy for a story.
  4. Study history. You can’t understand a place until you’ve read up on its history. News events and cultural changes today often stem from events and conflicts that happened years, sometimes centuries, ago. While you’re in college take as many world history courses as you can pack into your schedule and then continue to immerse yourself in history through books, documentaries and visits to museums and historical sites.
  5. Become proficient in multiple media skills.  Foreign correspondents today are often expected to shoot photos and video, prepare radio and TV broadcasts, post on social media channels and report breaking news on mobile devices. Global journalists should be familiar with the latest news-gathering tools and technology and how best to use them.
  6. Keep your passport current. Always renew your passport at least six months before it expires because some countries won’t give you visas if yours is about to run out.
  7. Learn how to read a new culture. Each time you’re someplace new, study the society and its way of life. Pay attention to music, language, religion, holidays, cultural practices and the relations or tensions among different religious or ethnic groups.
  8. Know what you’re getting into. Foreign reporting may sound exciting and glamorous but it can be grueling and dangerous, too. Talk to some international journalists to get a sense of what’s really involved. Ask for advice. Understand that the long hours and long absences from home can wreak havoc on a family or a relationship.
  9. Learn to network. Many, if not most international reporting opportunities aren’t posted on job websites; they come from knowing the right people. Editors who want to hire freelancers abroad often think first of people they already know. Full-time jobs often go to people who have already developed an expertise in that region.
  10. Just do it. While many global correspondents are assigned to foreign bureaus after years of reporting in domestic newsrooms, others just buy a plane ticket and start reporting. With proper preparation and planning, that can actually work. Follow your passion.

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Students Say...

This past month in Istanbul has truly been life-changing. The program has provided me with a glimpse into the life of a foreign correspondent, while introducing me to one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It was inspiring to work with others–fellow students and faculty–who were so passionate about journalism, foreign affairs, and making the world a better place. I was surprised by how much I learned and transformed in such a short period of time, and am more excited than ever about my chosen career path.
by Stephanie Henkel, California State University, Northridge, Istanbul Project 2014