Foreign news service needed
by Peter Preston Posted Tue, Feb 1 2011
There’s something wrong with this interconnected world of ours. The faster we can link up to Hong Kong, Melbourne or Moscow—one click of a keyboard away—the less we seem to know. Globalization equals ignorance about what lies just over our horizon. And see how the news media reflect that ignorance: by shutting down bureaus overseas, by cutting back on foreign correspondents—and by boosting celebrity coverage instead of international reporting.
There are 40 percent fewer stories about the wider world in British newspapers now than 30 years ago (before anyone mentioned globalization). The same goes for TV almost everywhere I travel. America has turned in on itself so far you can barely find foreign news in metro papers. The nightly news barely mention the rest of the world. Why? Surely this ignorance can’t be bliss.
Two major U.K. reports have made the same resounding point. Shrinking World (by Martin Moore for the Media Standards Trust) charts what it sees as an avalanche of trivia and insularity, sweeping awareness away. Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant? (by the former BBC news supremo, Richard Sambrook, for the Reuters Institute) tries to delve deeper. Yes, he says, the old kind of correspondent—the grand, visiting “fireman” jetting in for a war or an election, then jetting home again—has had his day.It’s simply ridiculous to pretend that lofty judgments from a nonexpert, nonlanguage speaker can be delivered to much effect any longer. The growth of a push-button, high-speed globe means that the audience is actually far more intelligent and informed. It’s not that it isn’t interested any longer: On the contrary, this kind of audience probably knows too much. And the coverage it demands is more informed, more sophisticated. It must come, increasingly, from local journalists who do speak the language, who live and work permanently in the country they cover. There must, in sum, be a foreign service on offer here. Not a random collection of delights or disasters, but a service in the purest sense of the word.
Rolling the two reports together, international reporting isn’t dead—but it is pretty sickly. There is a continuing demand for information, but not in the old ways of yesteryear. So what’s to be done?
First, I think, throw a few more arguments into the pot. One, which I felt at my editor’s desk as the Berlin Wall came down more than two decades ago, is the collective sigh of relief that greeted the end of power-bloc confrontation. People had had to keep tabs on what was happening in Central Europe or the Middle East because war there, with a nuclear twist, was something that threatened and terrified directly. You needed to follow the news from abroad because you feared for your family and your existence. Foreign news and home news fused together when it came to the threat of annihilation. But take away that threat and you could relax with the sports pages or cartoons. Motivation changed; problem solved.
Editors, remember, don’t work in a vacuum. They have constant audience-research figures at their side. If statistics show that readers and viewers are turning away from foreign coverage, then expect the amount of time and investment allowed to shrink. Less reporting begets even less.
But now add arguments on top. One is brute cost in a world of floating exchange rates. Foreign coverage is expensive. Cost-conscious management therefore wishes to provide as little of it as possible, which in turn means unfamiliarity with faraway problems, peoples and traditions. Again, the less you know, the less you may wish to be told.
We all remember how some of the old correspondents used to work, if we’re honest. Arrive in NeverNeverLand, buy a few newspapers, talk to a few local journalists—and recycle, using charisma to coat your thinness of knowledge with a veneer of omniscience. Television and the Internet have killed all that now. You can probably find the exact TV channel your reporter is watching 5,000 miles away somewhere on your own multichannel set at home. You can certainly read the same paper he’s reading on the Internet. Distance lends only the barest enchantment here.
How do you make up for those losses? By (as Sambrook says) providing a run of news and analysis on the same level of complexity as the primary sources you can access. But realize that, in the process, there’ll be losses to counter the gains. Realize that nuance, detail and complexity won’t engage the average reader because they’re a specialist service.
Filling the gap demands two policies, not one. The first, well shown by the success of thoughtful, interpretative news magazines such as _The Economist_—is to develop sophisticated coverage and use the web to give it added depth (and revenue streams). The second, just a vault of imagination away, is to make sure that the really big stories get really big, informed treatment that signals what all journalists know but managements sometimes forget: This is one world, not many, and true news values mean telling all of us what happens to it next.