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ICFJ's Patrick Butler says global expertise, technology skills, curiosity are keys for journalists

As part of our continuing Q&A series, the Global Business Journalism website interviews Patrick Butler, who oversees the program for the International Center for Journalists. ICFJ is one of the three partners in the GBJ program, along with Tsinghua University and Bloomberg News.

Patrick Butler: "I believe that journalism is one of the most important professions in our society."


Patrick Butler, Vice President of Programs at the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., has degrees in journalism and Spanish from the University of Missouri. He oversees as many as 70 programs administered by ICFJ every year. He has worked with journalists around the country to improve news coverage, focusing on subjects such as healthcare, technology, business and elections.

Before joining ICFJ, Butler worked as a writer and editor at various U.S. news media, including The State in Columbia, South Carolina, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in Missouri and the San Jose Mercury News in California. Working with ICFJ’s program staff, Butler is responsible for ensuring the quality of programs ranging from ICFJ's flagship Knight Fellowships to journalist exchanges, from investigative reporting networks to digital media innovation contests.


Q: How did you get into journalism? Why did you choose journalism as your career?

A: I was originally a psychology major in university. After volunteering at a crisis line, and working in a speech perception laboratory, I decided that psychology wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I thought about what interested me most, and I decided that I am a very curious person, and I love to write. So I switched to journalism. Once I started taking journalism classes, I was very happy that I made the switch. The profession has allowed me to meet and interview hundreds of very interesting people, to exercise my “creative muscles” as a writer, and to feel like I am fulfilling an important role in society.

I believe that journalism is one of the most important professions in our society. Without journalists, people would not have the information they need to make good decisions. Without journalists, government and business leaders would be able to do whatever they want, knowing people will never find out. And without journalists, the most vulnerable people in society would not have a champion to tell their stories and make people care.

Q: In your career as a journalist, what was your most rewarding news reporting experience?

A: One of the projects I am most proud of was on immigration to the United States, specifically to the U.S. South, which in the 1990s started to see waves of Latino immigrants for the first time. I was the only reporter at my South Carolina newspaper who spoke Spanish. A photographer and I spent several months documenting a stream of immigrants from two communities in Mexico to two communities in South Carolina. We went to Mexico and wrote about the communities the immigrants were leaving behind, including the factors that were causing them to leave. We traveled with these immigrants across the border, documenting their experiences, including risks and dangers. We spent months with them in their new communities in South Carolina, writing and illustrating how they were adapting to their new home. And we also spent time with the people in small South Carolina communities who were having to adapt to a huge influx of people from another country – deeply affecting schools, workplaces, etc.

The series of stories ran over a week in the newspaper and they had a big impact because they were the first stories documenting this new wave of immigration, which has increased massively since then. I was able to tell the story through the experience of several “characters.” And the story won some awards, including one from Columbia University.

Patrick Butler: "Journalism students today will themselves be inventing the journalism of the future."

Q: You oversee the Global Business Journalism Program in Beijing. Have you ever been to China? What impression has China made on you?

A: I have been to China once, about five years ago. I went to Beijing (to visit Tsinghua and the GBJ program) and to Hong Kong. China made a very deep impression on me. It was a fascinating mix of ancient culture and energetic modernity. If I were to choose some keywords, I would say: vibrant, culturally fascinating, wonderful food!

Q: At the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication, many students are studying international news. What should these students learn before starting their careers as international journalists?

A: I think anyone who wants to become an international journalist should be very well-rounded in their knowledge, understanding everything from politics to economics to history to culture. They should deeply understand the place that they are covering. They should strive to speak the local language or languages. They should be intensely curious, talking not only to public officials in the place they are covering but also to “ordinary” people. They should be well-versed in all aspects of journalism technique (writing, photography, videography, podcasting, social media, etc.) because they will often be working alone and have to produce everything. And they should always be thinking of stories that they want to cover so that they can pitch ideas to potential media outlets.

Q: You have focused extensively on technology at ICFJ. How do you think technology will change international news reporting in the future?

A:. Technology is constantly changing our field. I always tell journalism students that the profession will be so different for them than it was for me when I graduated from journalism school. At that time (the 1980s), we had to learn certain techniques that had been taught for decades – how to conduct an interview, how to write a good headline, how to edit a video story, etc. But journalism students today will themselves be inventing the journalism of the future.

We don’t really know for sure what is coming next. But here are some of the ways that I think international reporters should be prepared for technology changing our field in the near future:

  • Growing use of artificial intelligence. Journalists and media will find ways to automate much of the work that we do, hopefully enabling us to focus on the most important functions of a journalist – critical thinking, outstanding storytelling, etc.

  • Changes in social media platforms. Younger people, no surprise, don’t tend to go to traditional media sites to get their news. They get it from social media platforms. That means journalists need to come up with innovative ways to tell stories on these platforms. And we need to be constantly aware of which platforms young people are using. China’s Tik-Tok, for example, is one of the fastest-growing platforms even here in the U.S.

  • Combatting disinformation. Journalists of all kinds need to get better at both exposing false information, and finding new ways to make truthful information spread as virally as false information does. Journalists should become proficient in using open-source intelligence (OSINT) tools to show when photos, videos and audio have been manipulated, for instance. International news is probably the type of news that is most vulnerable to being manipulated, and governments as well as other non-state actors have a strong interest in manipulating international stories.

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