Parachute Journalism


Parachute journalism refers to the practice of briefly dispatching journalists to cover a news story far from their home base. For example, this might involve sending a journalist who regularly works out of New York into Venezuela to cover a political uprising, and then extracting them back to New York in a few days’ time.

Parachute journalism has gained more attention as traditional news media have cut their budgets for international news, and consequently the number of full-time foreign correspondents and foreign news bureaus, due to economic constraints. Parachuting journalists in typically entails far lower costs as it does not require the outlet to pay for a permanent office, support staff, an apartment, and allowances for spouses and children. Instead, parachute journalists may simply be based at a journalistic outlet’s headquarters or, as is often the case for television broadcasters, near transportation hubs like Atlanta, Dubai, Paris, and Tokyo.

Parachute journalism is often used pejoratively in connection to a broader critique of foreign correspondence that highlights its emphasis on sensational stories of coups and natural disasters that are lacking in context and deeper understanding. However, parachute journalism can be leveraged in positive ways.

Critiques of Parachute Journalism

Critics of parachute journalism contend that journalists who parachute into foreign news sites often lack a fundamental understanding of the culture and history of those places. Moreover, they often have a limited grasp of both the language skills and social customs of the places they cover, which forces them to rely extensively on intermediaries like translators and ‘fixers.’ Sometimes, the journalists parachuting in may have little experience working abroad. Finally, such journalists are typically not given the opportunity to stick around long enough to acquire the necessary background to deeply report out a story, or to follow up on its consequences.

The broader implication of this is that parachute journalism can result in shallow stories that focus on episodes rather than themes. Put another way, it can result in decontextualized coverage that is driven more by incidents than by a broader trend. In addition to an increased likelihood for making journalistic errors, critics also content that parachute journalism can promote stereotypical and ethnocentric versions of events that present international affairs as ‘exotic’ things, promote ‘otherness,’ or focuses on clashes of cultures and an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ framework. Furthermore, the journalists’ lack of cultural understanding can result in the omission of nuance and important contradictions. Lastly, parachute journalists may feel less pressure to consider the impact of their reporting or to correct their mistakes, as they will typically quickly move on to another place after they have finished their reporting assignment.

These critiques are not just philosophical in nature. Scholars have found that parachute journalists tend to rely more on government sources and social elites since they are more readily available and such journalists have not had the time to establish a more diverse sourcing network. The consequence is that such accounts tend to reflect the perspectives of those in power — and, in some instances, result in the recirculation of propaganda. Moreover, scholars have found that stories by parachute journalists tend to offer less context and are more likely to mischaracterize events and misreport details while disproportionately making use of shallower, conflict-oriented news frames.

Value of Parachute Journalism

However, parachute journalism also offers some benefits. The chief benefit is that it at least allows for some form of eyewitness journalism by professional journalists during a time of cutbacks to full-time, bureau-based foreign correspondents and to international news coverage more broadly.

For example, journalistic outlets in small and midsized markets can no longer afford to spend a quarter of a million dollars per year permanently stationing a foreign correspondent abroad. However, they can afford to fly a reporter (and production team, in the case of television) abroad to report on a few stories that are significant to their community but might not receive adequate coverage from global news agencies. This might include, as one example, a health program that a local community church is organizing abroad in response to a humanitarian crisis. While such stories may come with some shortcomings, they at least increase coverage where there might have been none. (That said, sometimes no news coverage is often better than poor news coverage.)

Moreover, while parachute journalism is typically associated with general assignment reporters — that is, reporters who do not specialize in a particular beat or topic — it can involve parachuting in subject experts. For example, a journalistic outlet may have a dedicated energy reporter or an environmental reporter who would be better able to cover the impacts of a nuclear power plant meltdown than the bureau-based correspondent assigned to that region. Similarly, an art critic may be able to offer greater depth in covering a new fashion trend in Mozambique than the bureau-based regional correspondent more used to covering politics.

Critics of traditional foreign correspondence have also argued that international journalism has always involved some form of parachuting. Indeed, a country like France has a number of local cultures, yet correspondents parachuting in to a small town from Paris may have little understanding of that town’s culture. Moreover, many outlets have a single bureau and correspondent to cover regions made up of many countries, each with a different history and set of customs — such as by using Jerusalem as a hub for covering the Middle East. Put another way, those critics contend that some form of parachute journalism is inevitable even under good circumstances, and that it is therefore just part of international journalism.

Ultimately, parachute journalism has become a significant and growing aspect of international journalism. While the practice has evolved largely as a response to financial constraints, it has not fully substituted the value of full-time, bureau-based foreign correspondents that at minimum tend to have deeper understanding of the regions they cover. Nevertheless, amid those constraints, it does offer some coverage where there otherwise would be none.

Key Takeaways

  • Parachute journalism refers to the practice of briefly dispatching journalists to cover a news story far from their home base.

  • Parachute journalism has been critiqued for producing shallower stories that focus on episodes and for being more likely to stereotype other countries and peoples. Scholars have also found that stories written by parachute journalists tend to rely more on official sources of information.

  • In light of financial constraints, parachute journalism has served as something of a replacement for a dwindling corp of full-time, bureau-based foreign correspondents. This allows for at least some news coverage where there otherwise might be none.