IN 2006, THE great travel writer Robert Kaplan gave a seminal speech at the Columbia School of Journalism.
Kaplan argued that mainstream journalism suffers from an obsession with soundbites, and that journalists should take time to steep themselves in the sort of local knowledge that only first-hand experience can provide.
Here’s my favorite part of the speech:
“Journalism desperately needs a return to terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing. Travel writing is more important than ever as a means to reveal the vivid reality of places that get lost in the elevator music of 24-hour media reports.”
Today, with the venerable old house of traditional journalism ablaze, Kaplan’s message is more relevant than ever.
Enter The New Reporters
Travelers have a profound responsibility to report on what they experience abroad. Travel writing, a discipline that can be flaky, shallow and commercial, can also be a powerful form of journalism and a force for social change.
In this brave new world, we are all foreign correspondents. We are all investigative journalists. We are all photographers and videographers with the ability to snap an iconic image that can change the world.
We are all citizen journalists, able to shine a bright light into dark corners. With a keen eye, a digital camera and a blog, we can grab the attention of people around the world and make them care.
Reporting From Inside Burma
A few months ago I crossed into northern Burma in the company of ethnic Kachin rebels and spent one month reporting on the Kachin freedom struggle and teaching underground journalism workshops to college students.
Few countries are as repressive as Burma, and to go to Kachin State under the auspices of the Pulitzer Center was a unique opportunity to shine a light on a place that does not receive much media attention.
Any traveler to Burma can, to some degree, help shine this light. Any traveler can post blogs, take photos and expose the fateful links between the totalitarian Burmese regime and immoral companies like Chevron.
However, going to Burma and acting as a citizen journalist bears an enormous responsibility. You are unlikely to be thrown in jail or tortured, but Burmese innocents who talk with you could bear serious consequences.
Travel as a Political Act
The prolific travel writer Robert Reid addresses this issue yesterday in a must-read essay at Worldhum.
Reid is the author of the Lonely Planet Burma guidebook. In the essay he discusses his own personal struggle with the question of whether travelers should even go to Burma. For Reid, the decision to go to Burma, and promote travel there, comes down to the ability of travelers to be effective citizen journalists, because ultimately:
Travel writers are in a position to fill information gaps and ask overlooked questions.
Right on, Mr. Reid. It’s up to all of us to fulfill that responsibility.