Five questions for Patrick Brown

Patrick Brown is this year’s Canadian
Journalism Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner. After being selected
from more than 50 nominations, he’ll receive the award at tonight’s 14th annual
awards gala. We caught up with the former CBC foreign correspondent to talk
about stories in a quick-hit news environment, what role long-form broadcasting
will play in the future, and, also, the role of foreign correspondents in a
Twitter world.

J-Source: You’re now an independent documentary
producer, based on Beijing. Can you tell us what you’re currently working on?

Patrick Brown: I have just finished an hour-long
film called We Shall Gather at the River. The approach is quite
different from my usual news reporting and public affairs documentaries. It’s
an intimate portrait of a Christian congregation in a village in China’s Yunnan
province as they build a new church. The story is told by one of the villagers,
rather than by me. One of the glories of the film, if I may put it that way, is
the extraordinary music. The villagers sing traditional Christian hymns, like Rock
of Ages
and Onward Christian Soldiers in beautiful four-part
harmony. I like the film a great deal, and hope others will too.

J-Source: Plenty has changed in the past 5, 10,
15 years, in terms of news environment, culture, technology, etc. What can you
do now that you couldn’t do during your primary working years as a foreign

PB:  People are doing and thinking much the
same things today as they did when I started reporting in the 1970s. The kinds
of stories we should be telling probably haven’t changed much since  Paul
Reuter started sending reports by carrier pigeon. The big difference in news
coverage is that we can get to where things are happening much more quickly,
and send our stories to Canada immediately. As far as documentaries go, I think
the development of light-weight equipment and digital editing has been
enormously important. We are now much more mobile and relatively unobtrusive,
which can make the process of telling stories with images at more fluid and
spontaneous and less articificial.

J-Source: Is there any past story you wish you could
have reported on in today’s news/technological environment? Or, vice versa, any
story that just wouldn’t work now?

PB:  It would have been wonderful to have
cell-phones, computers, GPS, protective vests and all the rest of the tools
when I was covering conflicts in the Middle East in the early 1980s. I also
recall a trip I made with cameraman Paul Belanger into Cambodia in 1987 during
Vietnam’s occupation. It involved two weeks of walking behind the Vietnamese
lines, and was quite arduous, since everything had to be carried. We had one of
the very first small-scale video cameras called a Sony newsmaker and we had to
be very sparing in taking pictures so as to ration the handful of batteries we
could carry. The resulting images were quite dramatic, but the technical
quality  was by today’s standards unuseable. As for what would not work
now, I think TV networks have become so obsessed with instant access to
reporters on the ground that most of them now spend much of the time standing
on hotel rooves telling anchors what they have just seen on the internet. The
idea of taking a camera and walking for weeks to capture a story seems absurdly
old-fashioned to the news managers who make network decisions today.

J-Source: With so many quick-hit story formats rising in
popularity, what role do you think the documentary, or longer broadcast news
story, will play in the future?

PB: An exponential increase in the amount of
information does not automatically

being a similar increase in understanding. The fact that
hundreds of channels and thousands of websites are all able hyperactively to
cover the same few events and celebrities does not reduce the need for
thoughtful and accurate programs. Not every story can be told in a minute 
and thirty seconds. Our attention spans are dwindling, but I think there is
still an audience for interesting and beautiful films even if they do not
include pictures car chases, explosions, and Lindsay Lohan.

J-Source: Then, there’s the question of those abroad
using Twitter, and other social media, to report on what’s happening on the
ground. How is the role of foreign correspondents changing? Will they serve a
different purpose for Canadians who want to know about the world, and what’s happening
in it?

PB:  I embrace new technology with vigorous
enthusiasm, so I hope I will not be judged a cranky old luddite, when I differ
from the widely-held view that Twitter and Facebook have completely changed the
business of, for example, making revolutions and reporting on them. I think
it’s fine that we now have many more ways of telling our stories, and I think
it’s splendid that local actors can instantly reach the outside world with
cellphone images and posts on these new media. However, the craft of reporting
involves much more than the method of delivering information and pictures from
one place to another. In a world ever more saturated with undifferentiated
information, there is a greater need than ever for context, explanation,
judgement, and balance.