SEAPA’s 2013 Fellows completed their fieldtrips two weeks ago, and shared some tips for covering two countries that turned out to be extremes not only in terms of internet connectivity, but also accessibility of interview contacts and information for writing their stories. Four fellows explored the expanding gaps for free speech in Burma, while two went to probe online spaces within the tightly-controlled Singapore media. This is what they can share.
With the country undergoing democratization since 2010, SEAPA Fellows found Burmese people enthusiastic to speak up on just about any issue. But there are downsides to this apparent advantage and Fellows share their tips in overcoming information overload and other challenges.
Do a good amount of initial research
“You don’t want your source to explain very basic information about the country,” said Nanchanok Wongsamuth from Thailand, whose stories wrote about the Burmese youth and democratization.
She advises future Fellows intent on writing about Burma to read up about the country’s demographic make-up, geography, and current issues such as electricity shortage, and key political events such as the 1988 Student Uprising.
Ayee Macaraig from the Philippines, who wrote about the drafting of media laws, suggests reading up news from both the Burmese and international media.
“It will give a more balanced perspective,” said Ayee.
Talk to as many people but keep the story’s focus in mind
While the Fellows agreed that talking to many people is necessary, they also cautioned against being side-tracked.
“When you have too much information, vetting them can be quite a process,” said Chen Shaua Fui from Malaysia.
“Talk to as many people as possible, but don’t jump to conclusion,” said Shaua Fui, who wrote on the the role of online speech in inter-religious clashes.
“All of the people I met were very willing to speak and I got a lot of information, but I had to keep my focus during drafting,” said Nanchanok, adding that future Fellows should also explore out of the capital Yangon to add more depth to their stories.
Be prepared for changes
“Events can happen quickly in Burma which requires you to change your story almost overnight,” said Ayee.
“A main focus of my story had to be shifted because of developments after I finished my fieldwork. So be flexible.” she added.
Hire an interpreter, have contacts in the country
Language can be a barrier when it comes to vox pop interview. One solution is to have an interpreter ready, suggests Nanchanok.
If not, said Jefry Tupas from Philippines, “you have to be prepared to speak very slowly and listen really carefully.” Jefry, who wrote about the role of internet in Burma’s democratization.
Shaua Fui credited their guide who helped the Fellows navigate Rangoon to meet and talk with different people.
“We were very lucky because our guide is a very resourceful and directed us to many people relevant to our stories,” she said.
The main challenge in covering Singapore is people’s general reluctance to being interviewed, SEAPA Fellows Ulisari Eslita from Indonesia, and Marlon Alexander from Philippines found.
Nevertheless both completed their stories and had some tips to share.
No vox pop
“Local people seem too busy to speak when randomly approached by a journalist; they also are especially reluctant when the journalist is a foreigner,” said Marlon.
Local contacts are paramount
Ulisari and Marlon made the best out of handful of local citizens, and long-time residents they knew prior to their arrival to give an understanding of the Singapore society.
Without them, it is virtually impossible to cover their topics, which is about the different aspects of online expression and restrictions in the city-state.
“When finally a local agreed to be interviewed, he also helped introduce me to another source, otherwise it would be very, very difficult to get further interviews,” said Ulisari.
“Listening to some migrants contacts, I get to know a side of Singapore which I think is seldom covered,” said Marlon.
Arrange appointments well in advance, prepare for email, social media interview
According to both Marlon and Ulisari, sources took quite some time to reply to their request. And among the handful who did reply or consent to an interview, some refused to meet face-to-face, asking instead to conduct it via email or social media chats, with a few requesting anonymity.
“I had an interview where the source record our conversation–it is like I was being interviewed,” said Ulisari.
Know the laws
Knowing the rules within the highly-regulated city-state not only helps alleviate culture shock, it also keeps a journalist informed of risks when asking certain questions.
Don’t give up
Ulisari and Marlon sent out dozens of emails, made numerous calls and text messages requesting for interviews. They also asked people they know to connect them with other people. At some point into their 10-day fieldwork, they worried whether they would secure an interview at all. Eventually, they did get good sources.
“You just have to keep trying and don’t give up,” said Ulisari.