Students of journalism travel smarter

Meeting a Masai tribe in Loita Hills KenyaThere’s a lesson successful journalists and writers learn early on, which is: stories are everywhere. But where do you start? David Miller of MatadorU explains that how you choose to travel will make all the difference and he walks us through 5 very practical steps to finding your story…

“Stories are like tracks, just below the surface anywhere we happen to be. Take the building you’re in right now. What street is it on? Who is it named after? Why was it built in that particular place? What was it originally used for? How has that usage changed over time? Who were the original inhabitants? Where are they now?

As we follow these tracks, we begin to realize stories of place, culture, and our own connection to it. And if we habituate this into our travels, we start to understand the maxim that real travel isn’t so much about seeing new places as it is seeing every place with new eyes.

STEP 1: Deconstruct how you “see” people when you travel

As travelers, we tend to objectify and compartmentalize others. It’s natural, part of our instinct for self-preservation when acclimating to a new place. But if we allow strangers, whether airport baggage-handlers or taxi drivers or local people, whatever the case may be – if we allow them to remain defined to us simply by their “otherness”, then as travelers we’re only seeing the outermost skin of a place, which is often an illusion.

Consider if you’ve ever done any of the following:
1. Romanticize someone else’s life (ex: A mountain guide in Ecuador), without really knowing what their life is like.
2. Characterize someone (ex: An incredibly affable guide in Costa Rica), without recognizing the material / economic connections between you.
3. Project the emotions someone made you feel back onto them (ex: The carefree Cuban woman).

Again, there’s nothing to blame – these behaviors are part of human nature when we travel. But if we bring more investigative practice and intention into it, the landscape suddenly shifts.

STEP 2: Establish context

One of the biggest differences between most travel blogging or diary / “journal” style-storytelling versus actual journalism is that journalism avoids portraying events or characters without proper context.

There’s a simple journalistic tool for establishing context: the “5 Ws,” or Who? What? Where? When? Why?

So referencing the example above, the mountain guide whose life we romanticized (“If only I could live so simply…” etc.), we shift from more of an “observational” role to participant.

We have to learn his story, the context for why he’s here, his motivations, hopes, struggles – in other words, his life as a real “subject” rather than an “object.”

STEP 3: Interact

So begin asking questions. Learn the language or have a bilingual friend or guide help you.

WHO is he? What’s his name; what does that name mean? Can he trace that name back?

WHAT is he doing exactly? Not just his occupation but his life overall? What does he hope to do in the future? Is he a father?

WHERE did he come from? How exactly did he travel?

WHEN did he ______ (get here, start guiding, etc.)? The question “when” helps get people into narrative mode like no other.

WHY did he become a guide? This is often the most complicated question, one that doesn’t always have a direct answer, but which can peel back layers of cultural differences between people, and reveal your own inherent prejudices, privileges, and problems versus those of the subject.

All of the questions above must be rooted in respect and genuine curiosity. The idea isn’t simply to start firing questions, but engage naturally in conversation, building up trust.

Whether you consider yourself a journalist or not doesn’t matter. Bring a notebook. When the time seems appropriate, ask if it’s ok if you take a few notes. Use the voice recorder function on your phone, or take a field recorder such as the Zoom H2. This reinforces (both in you and the subject) a sense of purpose in your conversation.

Most people have an innate desire to tell their stories, and your showing interest (rather than treating them with indifference or superciliousness) can go a huge way towards creating mutual goodwill and respect.

STEP 4: Don’t confuse your subject’s story for your own

If you’re doing it right, you’ll discover emotionally rich connections with people: friendships, enmities, challenges, an entire “landscape” that most others will have overlooked entirely.

But by its very nature, this process of building relationships implies that your own personal story is affected, and as this occurs, the line between your views on a person, place, issue, and/or culture and those of your subject’s may become blurry.

An example of this line actually getting crossed is when we adopt or appropriate a kind of generalized outrage, shame, or other emotional posture over histories (ex: political violence, or an environmental disaster), as if these histories affected us the way they affected our subjects.

It’s not that we shouldn’t feel whatever comes naturally in our travels, but we always must keep in mind that at the end of a trip, we can “go home.” Our subject can’t. We must remain true and transparent that what we learn about our subjects is filtered through our own perspectives, backgrounds, and sensibilities.

When it comes time to share what we’ve learned, we can help share our subjects’ stories, but we can’t “speak for” them. We can’t share emotions which are rightfully theirs.

Step 5: Formulate journalistic objectives for your travels

At this point we’ve laid the foundation, essentially shifting our travel modality from that of passive observers to active participants, asking questions, looking for stories, and recording them. It’s important to note that while formal training such as journalism school or a program like MatadorU can help, the single biggest step is simply making the decision to incorporate this practice into how you travel.

Once you’ve got that, begin planning ahead, seeking out journalistic objectives for your travels. These should flow right out of subjects you’re interested in. Snowboarding? Consider shadowing a ski patroller for a day. Dancing salsa? Interview musicians in Miami.

Take every opportunity, whether it’s a trip across the street, the country, or the world, as a possibility to learn something new.”

David Miller is Matador’s Senior Editor and the Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

Want to kick start your own travel writing career? Subscribe to our Intrepid Express e-newsletter, then for a limited time you can register for a FREE online travel journalism primer with MatadorU.

* photo by Victoria Thorn – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll read about Sue's travel experiences, find helpful travel advice and she loves sharing great tales from Intrepid travellers.

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