“Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” *quote to author Katherine Boo from a woman in a community she was reporting on.*
When Katherine Boo wanted to write about a community in India she spent 4 years living within blocks of the neighborhood. She went to the slum that she wrote about every day. She took copious notes and recorded conversations making every effort to check facts and verify stories.
She didn’t swoop in like an eagle eyeing its prey, ready to snatch and eat. She was steadfast and disciplined. It sounds like a laborious task, but also like a writer who was determined not to dishonor those she was writing about.
I didn’t realize until this year that there was such a thing as blogging trips for Christians, a short-term mission if you will.
Let me explain.
Let’s say an organization that works in the developing world wants to promote their work, get the word out on what they are doing. The new way to do this is to bring on popular bloggers, bloggers with thousands of readers and tens of thousands of twitter followers. The thought is that these bloggers will take their 7-day or 10-day trips to a country and come back with stories. Compelling stories of poverty and women and justice and why it’s important that we know about these people and these situations. Ultimately there are two goals: Raising awareness and raising money. The two go hand in hand.
A good writer can use their platform to do both those things for the organization.
But I’m not sure I agree with this approach to awareness or advocacy. And, though I’ve read several blog posts that challenge short-term missions, I’ve read only one essay that brings up blogging trips.
Before I move forward let me be clear: I am really trying to work through this one. I’m not trying to point a finger, I’m not trying to judge, but I am trying to get my head around this and why I question the validity of these trips.
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
The bloggers that go on short-term blogging trips are complete outsiders. They rarely know the language or the culture to which they are going. The chance of them misreading culture clues, misunderstanding what is communicated, and thus misrepresenting the situation is high, indeed probable. The chance of getting a distorted view of the country and the people is also probable. While this can happen in regular short-term mission trips, in the case of blogging trips the material is distributed to a wide audience, an audience who (in general) has not traveled, does not know the developing world in all its complexity.
The story is big, but the understanding is small.
There’s another problem that I see. And that is of glorifying the poor as sainted in their poverty, barely capable of sinning or evil. The beautiful African kids, noble in their poverty, the woman who uses her hands to sew clothes for livelihood and raises ten children on the side. The one-dimensional views that the blogger gets in their limited exposure to the situation can come across as naïve and creative writing, instead of fact telling and informative.
I think stories are important, I tell them myself. I also think that it’s important to see other parts of the world, to have our worldviews challenged and exposed, to rethink Christianity beyond a western lens. And if that is all the bloggers were doing I think I would be okay.
As I’ve tried to work through my feelings on this new type of short-term missions, I continually come back to the writing and work of Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and one who works hard to write well on poverty. I was first introduced to Boo through the excellent writing of D.L.Mayfield. She and Rachel Pieh Jones have become internet mentors to me on story telling, largely because they do it so well and have wrestled with this longer than I have. D.L.Mayfield wrote a piece called “Katherine Boo, Short-term Missions, and the Earned Fact“. In her essay she confronts well the tendency of the church to simplify problems and write without regard for the complexity of the issues.
The goal would be to write without glorifying or demonizing, to tell a story that is accurate and compelling, free of stereotypes and broad representation. In Boo we see a writer who does this, a writer with the rare ability to remove herself and ego from her narratives of others, a difficult task. She does not get lost behind sweeping generalizations but in her own words “Nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.” (from Reporting Poverty in Guernica Magazine)
I see in Katherine Boo a real and honest struggle with how to report. She does not gloss over the difficulties, she does not use words like a “voice for the voiceless” or “advocate”, something that I would argue takes far longer than a week or ten days to achieve. Instead, she wrestles honestly through this work and this vocation.
I have spent a great deal of time overseas, and thankfully when I was there I had not yet discovered that I loved to write. I say thankfully because I fear it would have been far more about me than about the people or countries that I love. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time overseas that I struggle with a 7 to 10 day trip that supposedly equips the writer with material that will be widely distributed and read.
I began this piece with a quote taken from an article in Guernica Magazine called “Reporting Poverty” in which a writer interviews Katherine Boo. I come to the end of this piece with another quote – one that pierces to the heart of the issue:
“We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.”
Blogger’s note: I realize this may be controversial and I welcome diverse opinions. As I said in the piece, I’m trying to work through this and may well end up with a different opinion.
*as quoted in Guernica Magazine: Reporting Poverty by Emily Brennan
- Toxic Charity? (pastorjohnkeller.org)
- Short-Term Missions: The Reasons We Go – Addie Zierman
- The Searing Grace of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” (davidghallman.wordpress.com)
- What I Thought I Knew About Short Term Mission Trips (shaungroves.com)
45 thoughts on “Blogging Trips – the New Short-Term Missions”
Blogging trips as short term missions — it’s definitely a thing. I’m not sure how I feel about them either, but at least we’re admitting they exist. :) I felt strange when a blogger came to my country and wrote about it. I felt like screaming, “you don’t know what it’s like to live here long term! It’s neither as bad nor as good as you make it out to be.” I sometimes even cringe when people with long-term plans come on their survey trips and say things about the people — because sometimes there’s a history behind the (good and bad) things they do that doesn’t make sense to us as Americans. But I know I probably sounded silly on my survey trip too. . . I’m also fairly certain I still sound silly to the people who’ve lived here longer than I have! As always, thanks for your perspective on things. ~Elizabeth
I think it’s important to recognize they exist as well Elizabeth. I had to laugh when I read that you wanted to scream — that’s exactly how I’ve reacted. Chocking back the screams as I’ve read things! Perhaps it’s the way things are framed. Perhaps if they were framed with more “I don’t know how this all plays out but here is what I felt” And the thing is, people are artists with their words. I said to Jody below that I wonder about the cost/benefit analysis. Clearly these organizations think that it helps them get more funds or more kids sponsored. But how does it measure up to the amount of support raised to send the bloggers to a particular country? I recognize that they probably raise the funds themselves – but I still think to be honest the group would need to weigh it all out. How many kids sponsored makes a blogging trip of 10 bloggers worth it? One? Ten? So clearly, I’m still weighing this out! Thanks so much for joining the conversation. So happy you found this blog!!
Thanks for articulating this. My husband has always rolled his eyes at such trips, and I’ve found myself uncomfortable with them, but still wondering why I feel this way. This helps articulate the matter well and gives me some good ideas to chew on!
Me too (the eye-rolling) and I really self-examined! I wondered if I was just jealous….how would I respond if I was asked? But the amount of money spent on these is so much! I don’t know what the cost analysis would be and I’d need to go to the sources but these trips take place all the time and as many as 10 bloggers are sent. It’s a hard one for sure.
Great article- I think it’s easy to get shocked by a week’s trip. It’s easy to compare their lives with yours, and it is easy to make a few deeper connections (and while it definitely helps to know the language, it’s not necessarily vital). But it is hard to get out of that comparison, that shock factor, on such short trips, I believe.
It’s the “honeymoon phase” of a mission trip, those first few weeks- everything is new, everything is unusual, and therefore everything is explore at a more shallow level, gleamed over due to our natural curiosity as we jump from “issue” to “issue” (are their poor roads really a major issue when so few people actually have cars?).
Yet, on the other hand, these bloggers do generate a quick flash of interest in the topic, one that may light a fire in a reader. I feel some responsibility lies on the reader, really- we consumers need to ingest the information presented, but also take a step back and think about what we just read/heard/watched. Unfortunately, we’re bombarded with so much information that people stop thinking about it. And to me, that’s a major part of the problem; we take anyone’s story into account without questioning it.
That’s not to say that when people open their mouth, it’s wrong- it’s just that it’s their own perspective, and we need to peak around the corners and look for different perspectives than the one presented.
While I question their ability to change much in a week, I think people do find fulfilment trying to help people, and it is terrible to say “no, don’t help them while helping yourself”. It’s not the most selfless trip, yes, but it still might help others and raise awareness, and I hold onto that hope as my reason to not condemn them.
The bloggers probably had a great, fulfilling trip. They probably were able to spread some word about their mission and goals. They probably misread some cultural signs, and they probably may have made some other faux pas that they didn’t realise. They probably spread some misinformation. It’s our job to filter through their amazing story and walk away with our own truths.
I agree with Gabrielle. What she said makes a lot of sense…common sense. It is something I will keep in mind as I blog. Marilyn, you asked what my url is–puttingonthenew.com. My friend Cherie are going to cross-reference your blog to ours and I feel it people really need to read and understand. Yes, there’s a lot of information an opinions out there. As a former teacher, I was my job to teach students what is fact and what is opinion and how to tell the difference. Not an easy job these day when the lines are so blurred, especially here in the West. Keep writing. I love reading your accounts.
Thank you so much for your thoughts. What you wrote about not being able to be an advocate in such a short amount of time really stuck with me. I don’t want to make it about formulas, but the time and investment involved really seem to help with all the ethics of this. I LOVE these discussions!
Yes to the ‘no formulas’. I’ve loved the discussion too – it keeps me honest and searching! I do think so much of this goes back to your original and excellent article – and the whole idea of earned fact and how we want quick opinion in this age of social media. We want to summarize our views, and words into 140 characters. And that’s not always a good thing. Thanks DL for your mentorship from afar :)
When I first thought about blogging I delayed for a year because what I found on it initially seemed to be all about creating a following in order to be published. The content and the worthiness of publishing that content lay outside the discussion in a way that gave me pause.
A year later I did start blogging and told only 5 people for almost a year. As I sought feedback on my writing again the subject of creating a “platform” in order to be published came up again. I know myself enough to know this is not what I need to claw after. I write for different reasons and publishing is not a huge reason. Or…maybe I just don’t know what I’m trying to support with this platform yet and I need to figure that out.
This discussion on short term blogging trips seems to be a similar issue: building a platform and the question of content. If the work is worthy then the platform that supports it will and should grow and, in my opinion, things grow best over time. The risk of these trips seems to be that a platform gets built rapidly under something that may not deserve it. That’s a huge problem.
Thank you for bringing up this subject…I think this discussion is very important to the future of overseas work.
I love the wisdom expressed in this comment. It brings up a bigger piece, one of the reasons why I wrote the post on The underworld of blogging. I started blogging the same as you. My family laughs because they know I started as my own therapy. I had too many thoughts going on in my head and little outlet for them to be expressed. That could be a good or a bad thing. I also started because I wanted to learn how to communicate in writing. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve realized that people write about being published, book deals etc. That was as far from my mind as the sun is from the earth. I have a full time job as a public health nurse that keeps me more than busy, I purposely don’t monetize the blog because I feel like then I would have to endorse products, use links that I don’t really believe in and have to pay huge attention to stats and who is clicking on what in order to bring in money. I know myself well enough to know that this would not work for me. As I’ve written more I’ve learned more what I don’t like in the blogging world, and more of what I do like. And I’m still an amateur. But I’m digressing. From what I’ve seen I still hold to my original words that I feel assessments are made, written about, promoted and they aren’t necessarily accurate reflections of what is really going on in a country. And while that can happen anywhere, when your sole purpose is to raise awareness and promote a work I think there are better people to use to do that. I appreciate your last words because I actually think it’s important as well. I don’t think it’s wise to have overseas work communicated in this way. I don’t think my opinion will have much affect – I think that blogging short term missions will still go on, and I think people will still go on supporting them, and I think others will strive for this as the pinnacle of blogging. But bottom line, I still don’t think it’s wise. Thank you – for your words and speaking into the topic.
You’ve actually already answered your own question: “And this is where my thinking becomes flawed, needy of reprogramming. Because I am not the Saviour, I am not the person who can make life okay. I am not the person who can whisper in their ears that I will always be there. I can’t scrub off dirt and wrong and sin with a soft, soapy cloth.” Jan. 6, 2013
Most who know me well would never accuse me of being naive (in fact, I border on the cynical because I am always surprised by the sin of man…see My Utmost July 30: http://utmost.org/classic/the-discipline-of-disillusionment-classic/ )
Remembering that I am only responsible to the Saviour for what I do or don’t do…because we can NEVER know the heart or motives of another…no matter how we try. And so while I appreciate your concern about the short- term mission blogging trips, I have to rely on the Lord for the outcome of that very thing…otherwise, I become bogged down in something that only He can ‘fix’. Because even Jesus can turn what was meant for bad into good (Gen 50:19)…and I have to trust that’s what He does when bloggers go astray.
Love this Cathy! I laughed when I saw (and heard in my mind!) my own words spoken back to me! You remind me of one of my sister in law’s as she does the same thing!! (It’s a good reminder, by the way) Your and my words are absolute truth – I’m not the Saviour, I’m not the one to judge motives.. I think of the verse in Philippians “Whether in pretense, or in truth, that Christ may be glorified” and those words are absolute truth. I’m still glad I brought up the subject, I still struggle even after the good conversation on the piece, Will I lose sleep? No! Will I support a short term mission blogger to go? No. Will I let God do the leading and convicting? Yes – I can promise that!! Thank you for engaging through your comment.
I’m with you on it….if God calls one to be a short-term missionary, go for it BUT don’t ask me to use my ‘extra-giving’ money to support you bc that is NOT going to happen…. :)
As a former expat with a number of years overseas…In response to your thoughts, I think part of my concern is ‘celebrity’ bloggers, whose expertise and claim to fame is … well…blogging. Their lives are somehow missing a real life element to it that should inform their writing, provide context and assure the rest of us they have some sort of authority to speak to the things they do – and not just snazzy social media skills. While I’m obviously in favor of blogging just because…because someone has something to say, because they want to process what is going on inside of them outside and in writing, because they are good communicators…I think we know what I am talking about. At the end of the day, ministries and writers are responsible to steward their gifts, time and influence. One can hope that they are aware that their actions have consequences and they have weighed them carefully before wielding them. And one can hope that those who have the greatest influence have earned it – through putting in the “long obedience in the same direction” (book by Eugene Peterson on the idea that discipleship is a life-long process, not accomplished in a short, dramatic time frame). As always Marilyn, I so appreciate the work you do and the thoughts you have. Thanks for being brave enough to put it out there so the rest of us can benefit from what He is doing in your heart and mind and life. Deanna
I love that book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I was just quoting it to my son 3 days ago. A classic that I need to re-read! Your comment on missing the ‘real life’ element – yes! That’s it. That’s what I scream at inside….I think it’s part of the expat/TCK thing.
Then the comment on celebrity blogging reminded me of an article posted yesterday on the cult of Christian celebrity leaders. The author did a great job challenging the idea that this even exists. One of the things she said that stayed with me through the day is: “It’s a warning we all must heed. No matter what our sphere, how large our following or platform, none are immune to pride. We may convince ourselves we’re about God’s work, so we do everything we can to build that empire, forgetting the servant nature of Jesus. It’s heady. And it’s wrong.” It convicted, and then, like conviction often does, it comforted, knowing we are in process and writing as people in process.
I’ve been thinking about this post all morning…and I’ve been struck by several thoughts…pardon the rambling!
First, it reminded me of the huge responsibility imparted by this gift of being able to write well, and communicate to a global audience via the web. I think that all of us, regardless of whether we are a pulitzer prize winning journalist or a sixteen year old blogging her two week mission trip, have a responsibility to be careful with our words. We ALL owe it to the people we write about (and to the God who gave us this talent) to seek to “write without glorifying or demonizing, to tell a story that is accurate and compelling, free of stereotypes and broad representation.”
Second, achieving that ideal is dang near impossible! The more mature we get I think the more we all realize that we are stuck behind lenses that have a lot of trouble coming off. Perhaps the pulitzer prize winner or the accomplished blogger have an easier time recognizing some of the more common biases, but this doesn’t change the fact that they still struggle with them. Even Katherine Boo wakes up in the middle of the night questioning her ability to do the job faithfully enough! If she struggles with it, what business does an amateur like me have even trying?
Third, I think the way out of this is to have MORE writing rather than less. I would love to see MORE short term mission trips where the focus is primarily on learning and reflection. Right now the standard model is to send a group of westerners off to a village somewhere to build a wall or dig a well. In my experience very few of the participants know anything at all about construction work and are not very efficient at accomplishing the tasks they set out to. After the trip many of these participants claim that the experience was life changing…but it’s never because of the work they got done. It’s almost ALWAYS because of a relationship that was formed across the cultural barrier. Why not abandon the pretense of “doing a job” and allow these trips to focus primarily on building relationships and reflecting on what is learned from those relationships? Training in advance of the trip could focus on the basic skills needed to cross cultures, how to understand one’s own cultural lenses, and on how to reflectively consider and communicate (and write about) what is being learned. These trips could be guided by experienced culture-crosser/writers (AKA the readers and writers of this blog), and participants could be mentored in how to process what they are experiencing.
Imagine a church and a world in which so many people are trained on how to reflectively consider their own culture and privilege, rather than on how to lay bricks…THAT might actually change the world.
This didn’t feel like rambling to me Tim! It felt well thought out and articulated! I agree heartily with your first two points. So much so that writing has been much harder for me lately. The more I grow the less I feel I have to say….isn’t it supposed to be opposite? But one of the things I didn’t quote Katherine Boo as saying is that the only worse thing would be the stories not being told at all. That should answer my short term blogging missions question.
But it doesn’t and that’s why I disagree with your third point. While I get what your saying, I feel like we end up with a bunch of experts who aren’t experts. Recently in an online discussion I was talking with a parent of TCKs and a couple of adult TCKs about the TCK dilemma around belonging. The point was brought up that it may be easier for kids now, because our world is so global. But – I don’t think that’s all true. At least when I was growing up people were honest about not knowing Pakistan, now – if you’ve spent a week in a country the general attitude is that you ‘know’ the country. And maybe because I know too well the underbelly of the blogging world, I know some of this is about stats. That’s the hard and sad truth. Even NY Times writers admit that they are well aware of how many times their stories are emailed, shared, tweeted etc. Contrary to what many think, I’m not opposed to short term missions as long as certain guidelines of partnership and only going where you are asked to go are followed. But I am rambling now….! This needs to be a good Brown/Gardner reunion chat – when can we see you?
This has given me much to think about: Our family went on an almost 3 month short term mission trip last year. I blogged to keep all our friends and family informed – and maybe as a way to cope as well. The trip ended up being harder than I thought it would be and I tried really hard to be real with all my processing. I had misconceptions and as time went on (past the 2 weeks and then the 6 weeks), I started seeing those misconceptions more clearly…. and hopefully portrayed that to my readers. I had glamorized in my mind what it is to be a missionary ever since I was a child. The reality that I saw was that missions work is hard, mundane, lonely and YES – rewarding. I’m sure had we stayed even longer (which may be down the road), my eyes would have been opened even wider. My blog really was about me, even though I used the stories and the people around me to point out my own short comings. Part way through my trip (and on a more recent shorter trip) – I realized that my new friends that I was serving alongside, were reading my blog. That made me stop and think about how I was communicating – would I say in my blog the same thing I would in person to them? More importantly, was my blog true (even if I have to acknowledge the truth being my perspective of the truth) and was it bringing glory to God?
I love this reflection and have thought about it since I read it yesterday. I feel like I’ve seen my own growth in writing/blogging since I began and your last two sentences really capture what I’ve been thinking. And I realize that the end result should not be to be paralyzed by what we write, but thoughtful and willing to own what we say. Your last words are convicting! Ultimately how does this bring glory to God. Ouch sometimes because I realize there are times when I write like I don’t care about that. Thanks for processing this aloud (well, you know what I mean) through this post. It’s so helpful.
Unfortunately these are problems even for professional journalists. Real-life situations are invariably messy, and the person we admire today is likely to let us down tomorrow. I appreciate writers who are completely honest and don’t caricature, glorify, or vilify.
Today’s “fifteen minutes of fame” journalism has ruined many lives; people are quick to circulate rumors and add their vituperation to whatever accusation is posted, without taking the time to find out what the truth is. In the same way, they can glorify something or someone that may not be quite as presented.
Well said. And our instant results and the speed of social media make all of this more complicate, sort of like writing out an angry email and hitting send instead of waiting to be more thoughtful. I think as well that part of the problem is the audience, which is all of us who read and participate because we are quick to put people on pedestals and even quicker to take them off. We’re quick to remember the stories that are not true but not those that reveal the fabrication after the fact…those seem to make it to the back page of newspapers or social media sights.
Thank you Marilyn for giving me some insight. I’ve just recently started to blog. A friend has encouraged me to work with her (she does it as profession). I’m not so sure about blogging trips as a means of short-term missions. I’ve been on short-term mission trips as well as on the field for a long period of time. I always thought a short-term mission trip was a change to enter and be a part of what the Lord is doing in particular field. It is to be a personal experience to change your own heart and learn, listen and help where you are going. Of course, you are not there long enough to really give an expert opinion. And that is what it is…an opinion. We Westerners want to fix problems and do it immediately, especially if it concerns women, children, poverty. I believe we do more harm at time than the good we intend. But that’s a topic for another time. Thank you for giving me guidance as I start to write.
From the very little of what I’ve heard of your life through your willingness to share insights and stories through comments, I look forward to reading your blog. What is the url? I love your words on our tendency as westerners to want to change and fix and (I would add) impose cultural values on much of the rest of the world. Just last night I got in a discussion on this with some people that I’m going to Goa, India with in a couple of weeks. I actually see the value of Short term missions….but still uncertain as to money being raised for blogging trips and I think my issue continues to be the authoritative voice. Thanks so much for interacting with this post.
As a person who writes a food blog, but from the perspective of an expat, I think the bottom line is how authoritative we sound. I happen to be trained as a journalist, but can still only give my opinions and my observations as a personal traveler. I have read a number of posts from bloggers on supported mission trips. The information they impart about good work that is being done the world over and can use additional funding, is usually told in a personal, this-is-what-I-saw, way. As long as they don’t set themselves up as experts, I am going to go out on a limb here to say they do more good than harm by shedding light in the dark, needy places.
I think what you are getting at is, is it okay to exploit the poor by writing about them and publishing photos, for their own “good?” I say, it’s a fine line and the careful, honest, thoughtful author can balance on it.
I appreciate your ‘limb’ Stacy because, as always, it’s thoughtful and honest! I’d love to have a broader discussion with you on blogging vs. journalism. Another comment thread got into that a bit. One question: Even if they don’t set themselves up as experts, does their audience view them that way, and if so what can they do to state clearly that their words are opinion, they don’t speak for an entire country, their perspective is limited. That’s what I’d love to hear.
And I love, love your blog!
Good question, Marilyn. Any news story is, by its nature, expository writing, with the goal of informing the reader. It is up the the author to give just the facts and not stray over into opinion. I guess the real problem we face is when the author believes what he or she is writing to be fact, when in fact, it is personal observation, which any police officer at a three-car traffic accident with extra witnesses can tell you is a matter of perspective.
Editorial writing, on the other hand, means to state some facts but also to persuade the readers to take some action or to change a belief.
Here’s my question for you: Do you believe that short-term mission bloggers are holding themselves out as news reporters or editorialists? I think most understand that they fall in the second category and the responsible ones will share that in their blogs.
I also like to think that most readers are discerning enough to realize that a visitor writing about his or her personal experiences in a country, especially a short-term visitor, could never be confused with an expert. I suppose some misunderstandings could occur if readers have not followed the whole journey from inception and believe the blogger has been in a country for longer than they actually have. A responsible blogger, who genuinely wants to promote understanding, would make that amateur position clear, if not in each post, certainly in some sort of header or About Me.
But, and it’s a big But, even if you ARE FROM a certain country, does it give you the knowledge or expertise to speak for all inhabitants and citizens? I would assert a firm “No!” Once again, unless the writing is a strict news story – just the who, what, when, where, why and how, ma’am – every citizen has their own perspective, their own ethnicity, their own upbringing, their own education, their own culture, their own religious beliefs, etc. We may have experiences in common, but I could no more speak for a fellow American expat about what normal life is than I would imagine I could speak for any other subgroup of people.
Bottom line: We are all walking a different path and, with any hope, gaining experiences and cultivating wisdom, and we can all learn from each other’s words, with the grain of salt I’ll call understanding that we are all human and prone to misperceptions.
I tend to agree with your bottom line. And I appreciate the distinction between editorial content vs. news. I keep on going back to my original thoughts as expressed in the article – and those are two-fold: The complete outsider perspective that goes with the express purpose to write about the situation. I hold to my original thought. I don’t think it’s wise or best because their purpose is to shed light and raise awareness. And no – I don’t think someone who has never left the US, never visited Haiti or “Africa” (which is a big place) is the best person to shed light on a country or work. Obviously many people differ with me as these trips are more and more popular . The trips are also costly. To send 6 bloggers and 2 leaders to a place is not cheap. The trips are generally short and the sweeping generalizations are long. I didn’t call anyone out in this article purposely because its not about calling out a person, it’s about calling out an idea. If I had wanted to call out specific bloggers there are numerous examples of the over generalizations that I referenced. Perhaps I’m too influenced by Teju Cole’s work and the “White Industrial Saviour Complex” where there is an undercurrent that we are to save the world. While I don’t agree with everything he says and I can get really angry when I read his words, I think he does have some stuff worth reading on the west swooping in to situations without talking to those who live in a place. I’ve grown through the conversation on this post so I’m not sorry I posted it, but also realize it is complicated. And I am humbled because as Auburn Cathy says in a comment above, I am not the Saviour, I am not the one to question motives. While I expressed concern in this, and I personally support short term missions all the time depending on the case, I would never support a short term blogging mission. But following that, it isn’t up to me and obviously the writing of those who go resonates deeply with their audience. Does it move them to donate? I’m not sure – I would have to see statistics on that. Thank you – for your heart and your wisdom and your willingness to engage around this with me!
Hm. This is a tricky one, because motives will always be mixed around this kind of thing – especially when money and real need are involved. And who is truly qualified to tell someone else’s story?
I remember a South African friend expressing dismay because time and time again he’d show visitors around his city. They’d pass mansions and modern buildings. Then they’d pass through a slum area. Suddenly the cameras were out, and the report back was “poor African slum” rather than representative of the area. Yes, the stereotypes are easier to write about. But they’re also furthest from (guessing here) what an international tourist experiences. People don’t usually travel the world wanting to report back, “Yup, just like home.”
As you say though, blogging as journalism is a gray area. I always look for writers that ask lots of questions, rather than seeming to arrive at answers quickly. (Probably why I’ve so enjoyed this blog!)
You’re right – motives are tricky and even if they feel pure, or as pure as possible, we will always question ourselves and some will always question us. I had an email discussion with someone on this topic yesterday after I posted and the idea of saving money and not hiring professional journalists or photojournalists, who are specifically trained in fact checking, removing self etc. sometimes hurts organizations. Ultimately no matter how good a blogger, it is always opinion that is put on the page, and opinion is authoritative as opinion but not as representative of all. Am I talking in circles? One of the things I’m glad about in posting this piece is the discussion that has come out of it. So.Good.
A final thought – Your words are so kind….I especially appreciated them because I feel like you had a window inside my head as I was writing this piece.
Marilyn for some unknown reason, WordPress seems to be blocked by the powers that be here in this country. Not sure why and what it means but before I left for the US I had no problem reading your blog. At the end of the summer….6 short weeks later, I can ‘t access your blog and my daughter can’t post on hers unless she has a proxy server. Hope it will resolve soon so I can continue reading your posts. Judi “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.” Lam 3:24
I’m so sad you can’t read it! I think about you all the time – Hoping all is well with you in Moscow.
Thanks for writing this Marilyn, appreciate your courage to take on the issue. Good questions raised by both these comments. I believe it is important to document stories (and photographs) and yes, most people can’t spend so much time in a story like Boo did. But I think her words still apply, like about one person not being representative. Sometimes these writings oversimplify and the blogger is given an authoritative voice they haven’t earned, which then continues to objectify. I do think there is a difference between that kind of writing and journalism though. Am still thinking about that.
Rachel – I mean it when I say I couldn’t have written this post without you. And my issue continues to be the wrestling and the authoritative voice. I think I’ll continue to struggle even as I struggle with my own writing and voice. Thanks so much for your mentorship. (is that a word?)
Insightful. I appreciate you post issues you’re still grappling with. One question this brings to my mind is “Who, then, is really ‘qualified’ to write about their experience for a wider audience?” How long do you have to be immersed for thoughts and insights to be considered legitimate? And it really puts the onus on the writer to check their motives and heart before they put their thoughts out to the public. (But shouldn’t all us bloggers be doing that before we hit the publish button?:-) Other great points in the article too that I hope other people comment on!
So these are good thoughts! I’ve thought so much about the onus on me to check motives and heart – I don’t think it’s easy. And I hear your question on legitimacy….thoughts and insights perhaps are legitimate in themselves, because that’s what they are – thoughts and insights. In my work as a nurse when someone has symptoms, it’s not my job to question the legitimacy of their symptoms but rather to listen and to put their symptoms together with my knowledge to figure out what is going on. So maybe it’s that thoughts and insights are like the symptoms and need to be coupled with a more authoritative source to be more valuable. Or maybe it’s that what comes across is not thoughts and insights, rather an authoritative voice that hasn’t earned the right to be authoritative. And perhaps what bothers me as well, which I didn’t get into, is the money aspect. Who funds the bloggers? Uh oh – I think I’m rambling….!
I have plenty of things I would like to say about this but I fear I won’t get them across properly in a comment. I’m a freelance photojournalist working mainly with NGO’s and non-profits and though I am not a blogger per-say, I do document what is happening in various projects across the world. We would all love to have four years to spend with a people group to understand them completely, but it’s rarely possible. As journalists we are bound to get things wrong, yes, but we are also trained and learned in the art of interpreting situations and circumstances. While I would say I am not a fan of untrained persons doing this type of work, I would be quick to denounce the condemnation of short term documentation trips as this is the backbone of journalism. I am more than happy to further this discussion by email if you would like. Cheers!
Very glad you dropped in! And I see why you would rather continue the discussion by email – it’s the very reason why I almost didn’t publish, but glad I did. I wonder if your operative word here is “trained”. From my understanding of journalism (limited) it’s to write informative, unbiased, factual pieces on events world-wide. The goal is to try to remain free of influence, the readers will then come up with their own opinion. My understanding of short term blogging trips for missions is that they are designed for advocacy and certainly to sway opinion. In the words of a friend of mine “They are looking at something from the outside and relying on (an) outsider’s experience as authoritative. I don’t see the two as similar. I think short term documentation trips are important, and, perhaps that’s what the bloggers feel they are doing. Its true that I don’t know what training is provided for blogging mission trips – perhaps they are given significant instruction, perhaps they really do grapple with their voice. The pieces I’ve read don’t show that. I’d love to talk more! email@example.com ! So glad you weighed in!
You said what I was trying to come up with about journalism vs blogging, right while I was typing. Yes.
I suppose that is the ongoing issue of bloggers vs. journalists. How do we distinguish the difference professionally, and how do we get the world to see the difference? Idk. Will shoot you an email. ;)