As a perennial swing state, it’s become an election-year tradition for national media outlets to swoop into Wisconsin to quickly gauge the hearts and minds of likely voters before whisking away their reporters to cover other stories. The practice is known as parachute journalism, and it can have some unfortunate repercussions.
A recent piece in Harper’s Magazine titled The Art of Losing focuses on the city of Kenosha. It was written by someone who admitted that before spending time there, he’d never heard of Kenosha. The piece received mixed reviews, but it raised a lot of questions about parachute journalism, its merits, and how it represents middle America to outside audiences.
"When I first read it, I have to admit, I felt very defensive right away and a little angry because he calls Kenosha right off the bat 'a grey, exurban strip of Lake Michigan frontage with barely 100,000 residents,' " says Liz Snyder, a columnist and reporter for Kenosha News who grew up on the north side of Kenosha.
She says that she felt like the reporter came into Kenosha with a preconceived notion of the city and used that to guide the entire piece.
"The first thing he talks about is [Kenosha] being grey, and grim, and cold, but it's February," she says. As Wisconsinites know, the drabness of a winter day does not define a community.
After the piece came out, Snyder spoke to the author, giving her some insight into his process of experiencing Kenosha. His stay was over a month and his attempt at making connections in the community made Snyder a little more comfortable but still left concerns.
Which leaves the question: what value, if any, does parachute journalism have?
Logan Jaffe is an engagement reporter for ProPublica Illinois. She’s been on both sides of this issue as a local and regional reporter, and as a reporter for the New York Times. While working at the New York Times, she pitched a story about a town in Virginia that was holding celebrations of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day.
“I got a lot of backlash from that story,” says Jaffe. “Because it so much more complicated of a story rather than like this is happening, and this is happening, and it’s happening in this small town in America, and this is what it means.”
Parachute journalists often don’t have the time or the cultural understanding to provide context for those more complicated stories. This is when local journalists say they should be the ones covering the story. But Jaffe says larger news organizations don’t always have the trust to hand over stories to local journalists, who they may see as coming from less prestigious organizations.
She doesn’t think parachute journalism needs to disappear completely, but she says journalists need to think more about the audience they're writing about not just the audience they're writing for.
“[Journalists] are risking pushing the audience that you’re writing about, the communities you’re there to write about away, while you’re becoming a proxy for other outsiders who are reading this,” she says.
With COVID-19 limiting travel, this practice may be on hold, but Jaffe hopes that if and when it returns, reporters hear this criticism.