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My writer friend Marlene once had a dot-com job that seemed odd. She wrote for a travel site about various countries but never traveled to those countries. She simply aggregated information from other websites and did extensive online research before writing about them and putting together guides.

But strange as it seemed at the time, I was destined to repeat her style of long-distance reporting. I have written about bloggers in Egypt, Iran, and even Bahrain without ever stepping foot in any of those countries. And I often write in-depth stories and analysis without meeting interviewees face-to-face, relying on phone conversations, emails and their blog posts to give me insight into the subject.

In many cases, I felt like my reporting made a difference. I brought attention to stories that were only being told in smaller blogs, and shined a light on citizen journalists who were trying to tell the truth in difficult political circumstances. After writing about a flap at cyber cafes in Bombay, many other media outlets followed up on the story, according to cafe owner Asish Saboo (in a comment on MediaShift):

It was almost impossible to talk to the local press about the dilemma of cyber cafe operators. But immediatly after you published our story, we had [our story spread] across the globe in over 200 publications, including BBC, AP and others.

But there’s a flipside to all the good that can come from long-distance reporting: the shame of not being there. Everyone knows that the best reporting, especially foreign reporting, comes from people who are at the scene, who can see for themselves what’s going on in living color. When I told a new acquaintance recently that I had done reporting on stories about subjects across the globe — but hadn’t traveled to do the stories — his reaction was “tsk! tsk! that isn’t right!”

Perhaps there’s more of a generational divide on this subject of reporting from afar. Veteran journalists flanch at the idea of shoe leather reporting done in pajamas at a home office (“slipper-leather reporting”?). Younger folks assume that they can dig up dirt on any subject of an investigative report by doing their digging extensively online. With Google, public databases, public libararies and pay-per-search services offering up a treasure trove of details online, it becomes incredibly efficient to do the work at our computer workstations.

Balancing First- and Second-Hand Reports

And yet, I always feel better and more in-tune with the subject when I actually visit the office of a startup company (such as Twitter) or blog live from a conference (such as We Media). Those first-hand views allow me to see more details and give a more textured and nuanced look at the story.

While I have written about soldier blogs and video on YouTube extensively since the beginning of the Iraq War, I haven’t been embedded with soldiers or seen the way that milbloggers operate in the field. I was recently reminded of my shortcoming in a great profile in the New York Times of blogger Michael Yon. Yon has been blogging about the war for three years, with the financial support of his readers, following somewhat in the footsteps of Chris Allbritton and his reader-funded Back to Iraq blog.

What I noticed with the Times story was that its author, Richard Perez-Pena, was relying on second-hand information for his own report — telling the story of Yon through an interview with him as well as associates, without literally embedding himself to see how Yon operated. And that’s acceptable, as Perez-Pena was helping to spread the good work that Yon was doing to a wider audience.

With the increasing info-glut we all receive through multiple channels, the second-hand reports, the aggregation, the stories that simply say “look over here there’s something good!” do play an important part in the media ecosystem. They might be one step removed from the action, perhaps out of and above the fray, but they can give perspective and analysis that might be more difficult when you’re at the scene.

I think the key is finding balance in doing first-hand and second-hand reporting. Not all reports can come from the front lines or be eyewitness descriptions. But then again, a reporter can suffer from too much shelter in the home office, and not enough face-to-face interactions with subjects. With new technologies and reporting techniques, first-hand reports will start to become richer with multimedia and microblogging, and second-hand reports will have more material to sift through and aggregate. It will be fascinating to see how both evolve.

One interesting footnote about my friend Marlene: She eventually parlayed her time doing long-distance writing into real-world travel writing and has visited almost every continent multiple times thanks to the connections she made.

What do you think? What do you see as strengths and weaknesses of doing first-hand or second-hand reporting? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Self-portrait of pajama-clad home worker by Michael Rosenstein via Flickr.