Q&A with Mark Townsend, award-winning freelance journalist
Based in Dubai, award-winning journalist Mark Townsend primarily covers politics, business and economics in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Townsend has worked with major publishers and broadcasters including Al Jazeera English, Euromoney, Finance Asia, Financial Times, Reuters, and many more.
“Working as a business editor for several years, I experienced a steep learning curve with providing reporters as much flexibility as possible. There is a balance to be struck between the pressure of the daily grind and impactful stories,” says Townsend.
Q: Which aspects of your work do you find the most challenging? The most rewarding?
MT: The adage “you are only as good as your last story” has never been more accurate. The cycle of pitching captivating stories to editors is now a 24/7 challenge. Still—as I am sure many of my industry colleagues will attest—striking a unique angle or insight never loses its appeal.
Q: If there’s one thing you could change or improve about journalism—in any area—what might that be and why?
MT: I believe it is time to formally recognize the relationship between freelance journalists and the media that retains them. There is no doubt in my mind the relationship is not where it should be in terms of standards, pay or ethics. It is a minefield for those new to the sector, yet the number of freelancers is bound to increase given job losses related to the global pandemic. There is no easy way to improve the plight of freelancers, but a combination of building awareness and lobbying major national/international journalist organizations is one solution.
Q: The profession of journalism feels more attacked today than in a long time, but also highly necessary. Do you feel that’s true, and if so, why?
MT: Journalism is under attack amid the concentration of mainstream media ownership between a handful of influential proprietors. Public discontent about the role of journalism has emboldened governments around world to stifle reporting, and I speak from personal experience that state-backed coercion and intimidation has ballooned in recent years. The spread of politically motivated attacks should reinforce the role of impartial journalism, yet credibility and trust issues cast a long shadow over the profession.
Q: What do you see as some of journalism’s biggest potential pitfalls?
MT: Newsroom cutbacks have strained the fabric of journalism, and some media owners have a clear political agenda. This ramps up pressure on news editors, meaning many stories are left uncovered. Sadly, self-censorship has also increased in countries across the globe, illustrating the fact that major advertisers can exert pressure to stop critical stories. Journalism needs to rebalance and earn back public trust. We have seen what quality journalism can achieve in the right hands, but the industry is in danger of being usurped by celebrity driven content and sensationalism. As glib as it sounds, we must return to basics.
Q: What do you think about the role of technology in journalism? Is it helpful? harmful? Something in between?
MT: I admit to being previously skeptical about the role of technology in journalism. The industry undoubtedly had to be ‘reimagined’ and data journalism has played a big part in aiding that transformation by making stories interactive and immersive for the reader. Technology has also precipitated journalism’s fall from grace, re-channeling crucial advertising revenues often to the Facebook/Google duopoly. But companies that have successfully transformed, such as The New York Times and Financial Times, prove that a carefully crafted digital product balanced with deep-rooted journalism can be highly lucrative. I’m sold on technology’s role in the survival and prosperity of journalism. But will AI replace reporters? No.
Q: Social media has upended the traditional media landscape. One of the great challenges it creates is authenticity and malevolent actors. How do think journalists and reporters should deal with the rising tide of misinformation?
MT: The proliferation of social media has thrown up all sorts of issues for journalists, but disinformation is at the top of the pile, and heaps a lot of pressure on reporters. However, there are a growing number of OSINT accounts offering basic data verification and information to assist with fact checking. Journalists and reporters must train themselves. Knowing your beat and its inherent complexities should be enough to ring alarm bells when something does not seem right.