For a recent story, Washington Post reporter Robert Samuels had just six and a half days on location in Omaha, Nebraska, to report on a jobs training program intended to reduce black unemployment rates in the state. Less than one week to gather evidence and interviews for his story and find characters that could shape and drive the narrative.
Compared to the average timeline for many journalists, however, this was a relatively long stay.
Samuels travels between five and ten days every month – usually three to four days per location – to tell stories of people, policy, and politics all over the country. In the last year alone, these stories took him to places as diverse as Texas, Wyoming, Alabama, and Utah.
Samuels’ travel log is, ostensibly, a marker of “parachute journalism,” a recurring theme at the most recent Between Coasts Forum held last May in Chicago. “Parachute journalism” denotes a journalist reporting on people or places to which they have no tie - a potentially problematic approach, but one that is often deemed necessary to achieve well-rounded reporting. This practice summons mental images of a journalist from a major city dropping into the American heartland in a casting call for characters that meet predetermined stereotypes: a coal miner who voted for Trump, a middle-aged white woman who couldn’t vote Clinton but now regrets her choice. The resulting interviews and characters are logged and later chronicled for elite audiences clustered on the nation’s coasts.
“That is a very serious issue,” says Doug Oplinger, a speaker at the Between Coasts Forum, who spent 46 years at the Akron Beacon Journal before founding Your Voice Ohio, a solutions-based journalism collaborative. Your Voice Ohio, Oplinger says, has focused especially on improving statewide coverage of the opioid crisis.
Existing reporting, he explains, is illustrative of the parachute model’s potential harm: “Reporters are parachuting into Portsmouth [Ohio] and writing about hopelessness, and [missing] that the community is one of the more progressive in trying to battle the crisis. That’s one of the dangers. You’re kind of following what others have done and go in with preconceived notions.”
Reporting according to a fixed storyline can effectively disqualify claims to authentic reporting. But such a practice is not contingent on geographic distance.
"We are talking about the most obvious type of parachuting, but it also happens in the local newsroom,” says Oplinger. “I have seen it too often, in which a reporter will do data research...determine that the average person is ‘this,’ and they will go look for a person that represents ‘that’.”
Indeed, parachute journalism is a problem in newsrooms across the country, but one that many reporters are acutely aware of and try consciously to avoid.
“If I pitch an idea and I go out and I realize it's not really true, I'm not going to fight to make sure that it is,” says Esther Honig, a radio reporter with KUNC and Harvest Public Media in Colorado who spoke at the Forum. “If you believe there is something happening, that there's a trend, and you call up twelve people and they all say ‘No, I haven't seen that,’ the answer isn't to go and find a thirteenth person.”
Despite his frequent flights and quick turnarounds, Robert Samuels’ reporting is characterized by nuance, framed by intimate portraits of people whose lived experiences defy overworked stereotypes.
For an April story on welfare reform in Wisconsin, Samuels spent days with James Howlett and his family as they struggled to navigate the inconsistencies of Gov. Scott Walker’s public assistance system. In another recent piece, based in Omaha, Samuels attended a jobs training presentation before finding two students within a class of 12 who he felt “stated the stakes of the story.”
Samuels allows the people he interviews to drive his stories, which is perhaps one of the keys to mitigating the pitfalls of parachuting.
“I think oftentimes a reporter goes out, trying to figure out what an issue means to them,” says Samuels. “When you do that, you lose a sense of genuineness and of nuance, and of that community.”
Samuels says, “I come up with a theory and then I drive in to see if what people are actually saying echoes what people have told me on the phone or echoes what people experience in their lived lives...The first question that I try to ask folks is ‘Tell me about your community, what interests you, what animates you.’ Then we see where we go from there.”
To Samuels, the damage posed by the reverse – a story driven by the ideas and interests of the reporter, rather than the characters – isn’t an abstraction. It’s emblematic of a mode of reporting he saw first-hand growing up in the Bronx. Coverage of his neighborhood by New York’s major newspapers – “local” outlets – frequently carried misrepresentative content, he explains, unrecognizable to the people within.
“Whenever they talked about my community, it never felt like the actual thing,” he says. “It’s like there’s this foreign person doing this.”
"In the larger sense, that parachuting in, that isn't necessarily a national reporting versus a local reporting problem; it's a reporting problem” Samuels explains. "There are lots of great reporters who go out and do this well...and [they] are using our collective powers as people who are interested and intrigued by journalism to actually get those stories out."