World view - Lindsey Hilsum's guide to TV's foreign coverage

How valuable is a report about Fallujah by a correspondent who's sitting in a studio in London? To f

Even intelligent, well-educated people think that I travel by magic carpet. "I saw you in Pakistan," they say, "but then you were in Turkey!" In fact, they didn't see me in Pakistan - they heard my voice over pictures of Pakistan. If you don't understand who takes the pictures, who's asking the questions and whether the correspondent is on the spot, you cannot really evaluate what you are watching. So here is the Hilsum Patent Guide to International News on Television.

Who takes the pictures?

If you watch the news on Channel 4, ITV, BBC and Sky, you will find that on most international stories the same shots are repeated. This is because all major broadcasters subscribe to two global TV picture agencies - the UK-based Reuters Television (RTV) and Associated Press Television News (APTN). These organisations have camera operators and journalists around the globe, collecting pictures that are fed by satellite to our newsrooms every few hours. Even if we don't have a camera crew and correspondent on the spot, we can still tell the story.

What - you mean the correspondent isn't really there?

If you see the correspondent speak directly to you in a "piece to camera" or "stand-up", then she is there. But if she does not appear on screen, chances are that she's lurking in an edit suite in London, or in a regional bureau such as Cairo or Washington, DC. Beware newscasters who introduce a story with: "Joe Bloggs is in the region." That means: "Joe Bloggs is a bit nearer the story than you, but not in the right place." Most TV correspondents are vain creatures who like to appear on air as much as possible, but occasionally a reporter may be in situ but not on screen, so listen out for key phrases in the voice-over: "he told me", "she showed me", "we went to . . .", which indicate presence. A bland script suggests "an agency wrap" - the reporter sat with a video editor and wrote a script to fit the agency pictures available.

Does it matter if the correspondent is there?

Yes. A good correspondent can learn far more by being there than by making phone calls from London and reading the descriptions (called "dope sheets") that accompany agency pictures. Agency reporters are usually local people - which means they may understand the story well - but they're supplying a global market, so must stick to the basic "who, what, when, where and why?" interview format. A correspondent for a single outlet can ask the surprising question that throws the politician or warlord off balance. A correspondent can evaluate what he's seeing. The other day I watched an agency-feed shot of body bags near Fallujah. An Iraqi man said: "They're all women and children." I had been on a body pick-up in Fallujah a few days earlier and had seen no dead women and children, so I was sceptical, but a journalist who hadn't been there might take it at face value. Nothing beats a good correspondent and camera operator working together on a specific story.

So if the correspondent's not there, should I dismiss the story?

Not necessarily. While I was with just one US marine unit in Fallujah, my colleague Alex Thomson in London was pulling together pictures and information from multiple sources. I had the detail and the action, but he had the overview, gleaned from making calls and reading the wires - the written stories provided by AP and Reuters, which provide the basis of most news reporting for television, newspapers and radio. In Baghdad, it is too dangerous for foreigners to go out, so the pictures are taken by brave Iraqi cameramen. Some TV correspondents are confined to their houses or hotels in Baghdad, while others are sitting in London, but all are "wrapping" pictures and not reporting directly from the scene. None of us has reliable, up-to-date, complete information. When I do an "agency wrap", I use my contacts and experience, but I will never be as sure of my facts as when I get the information first-hand.

What if there aren't any pictures?

Well, there's no story, then. This sounds daft, but it is largely true. About a thousand people were drowned when a ferry sank on Lake Victoria in 1996. There were no pictures because no one has camera crews near Mwanza, Tanzania. No pictures, no TV story - just a mention. But every time there's a brisk breeze in Florida we have a hurricane story, because the pictures pour in from all the American networks.

So should I trust TV news?

Only TV news can show you exactly how someone spoke, which can be as important as what he said. But while a picture may be worth a thousand words, complex arguments are often better conveyed in print. It's not enough to watch Channel 4 News; you need to read the New Statesman as well.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.