Global Journalist

Is the Foreign News Bureau Part of the Past?

While some might herald the futuristic era that web-based journalism—with its blogs, tweets, and YouTube videos—is bringing to foreign reporting, Tobias Piller, long-time Rome correspondent for a German newspaper, has a different take. For Piller, relying on nonspecialists and drop-in coverage in place of regular foreign correspondents is, in fact, taking foreign coverage back to earlier days.

“When I arrived in Rome 17 years ago, there was what I would call an older generation of foreign reporting,” says Piller. “It basically consisted of something like a ‘letter from Rome’ maybe every two weeks—an analysis of the country’s curiosities, an analysis of politics now and then, mostly stereotypes. It was basically a generalist’s view.”

As mainstream media replace foreign correspondents with “hot spot” drop-in coverage, outsource to local hires and newswires, and even the Vatican turns to YouTube, Piller says the demand for and faster arrival of information creates a different type of journalism, which often results in a kind of painting in broad strokes.

Piller, who covers Rome for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, cites German confusion about Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s continuing popularity in Italy as an example of what only in-depth, authoritative reporting can offer.

“Germans can’t understand why Italians elect Berlusconi over and over again,” he says. “They say he is a crook, so why does this happen. Or they think Italians have been brainwashed. The fact is that Italy is very complicated. Italians don’t see it so much as black and white. You need to see it from the inside. If you are not an official journalist, you are not able to explain that.”

In a 2007 Washington Post article, the “Demise of the Foreign Correspondent,” former Boston Globe foreign correspondent Pamela Constable makes a similar argument for long-term, on-the-ground coverage: “The erstwhile bureau chief in New Delhi or Cairo, chatting with diplomats over rum punches on the veranda, is now an eager kid with a laptop and an Arabic phrase book in her backpack. …They [newspapers] can put events in context, explain human behavior and belief, evoke a way of life. Foreign correspondents can burrow into a society, cultivate strangers’ trust, follow meandering trails and dig beneath layers of diplomatic spin and government propaganda.”

The story is familiar. Despite increasing globalization of the economy and issues such as global warming and international terrorism, news outlets continue to shutter foreign bureaus and slash foreign coverage at an alarming rate.

Constable noted that ABC had closed its offices in Moscow, Paris and Tokyo while NBC had closed bureaus in Beijing, Cairo and Johannesburg. Aside from a one-person ABC bureau in Nairobi, there were no more bureaus left at all in
Africa, India or South America.

In 2008, former CBS correspondent Jeffrey Dvorkin reported that CBS’s 38 correspondents in 28 bureaus in the mid-1980s had been reduced to five correspondents in four bureaus by 2008.

As newspapers deal with life- or-death budget cuts and layoffs and turn to the survival strategy of local, local, local, the feeling is that readers can turn to the Web for international news.

Estimates of the cost of maintaining a foreign correspondent range from $250,000 to $500,000 a year and in security-sensitive war zones, much more. Frances D’Emilio, an AP correspondent in Rome, points out that costs can include a living allowance to help cover some of the higher expenses for working abroad and tuition for English-language schools for children.

Even where there are still bureaus, expense cuts can make an impact. Less travel money can mean covering events from afar. Courtney Walsh, a veteran journalist based in Rome and a contract reporter with Fox News, said that often her team uses video from Sky Italia for their breaking news reports. She says, “Personally, I like being in the heat of the action, whether it be the first hours of the L’Aquila earthquake or listening to testimony in [the] Perugia Amanda Knox case, so it is kind of frustrating.”

Long-time free-lancers have also felt cuts. Sheri Jennings, who has free-lanced in Rome for a number of publications and TV networks for ten years, says many have eliminated the retainers they paid regular contributors and are paying per story. “They are turning to young people who are not necessarily committed to the publication,” Jennings says. “I am also hearing from colleagues that now a large portion of territory/foreign stories will be written out of the headquarters.” Being paid with U.S. dollars is also not helpful in today’s economy, she notes.

Coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has not only monopolized financial resources for foreign coverage but also contributed to the growing trend of outsourcing reporting to locals.

In December 2008 George Washington University and the Broadcasting Board of Governors sponsored a forum on “International News Coverage in a New Media World: The Decline of the Foreign Correspondent and the Rise of the Citizen Journalist.” During the forum, Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that the trend toward mainstream media outsourcing coverage to the ground level got a boost in Iraq, where a local hire— the driver, the translator—is often the only person who can venture out to dangerous environments.

Indeed, when it comes to relying on local voices, mainstream news outlets might have reached a point of no return only this summer.

In June, media were forced to rely on Twitter and YouTube for news of the Iranian election protests, with TV networks compelled to run and comment on controversial YouTube videos that were welling up on the Web.

Such direct and immediate street-level coverage has its own appeal. Patrick Meier, research fellow for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, noted during the forum that, in a crisis, citizen journalists could provide immediate information that can update outsiders as well as keep locals out of harm’s way. He pointed out that during the November 2008 terrorist shootings in Mumbai, the Wikipedia entry for the attacks was updated over 900 times in 21 hours. “No mainstream media outfit could have edited all those voices 900 times over 21 hours,” Meier said.

Aside from lacking the seasoned perspective of a regular foreign correspondent, citizen journalists might have little commitment to objectivity; the line between a citizen journalist and an activist, between reporting and opinion, can be a fine one.

As NPR foreign news editor Loren Jenkins said during the 2008 forum: “We are in a profession in which everyone lies to us —from the government all along the line on down—either intentionally or because they don’t know what is going on…Part of what journalism is really about is trying to pull through all the distortion. You shift and you find where in all that mix is the grain of truth, and that is what training and editors are about.”

Jenkins acknowledged, however, that there is a role for outsourcing to the grass roots level, and noted that NPR relies on bloggers who can get to areas that its correspondents can’t. He cited the usefulness of the blog, “Baghdad is Burning,” and added that you need to get to know bloggers and establish relationships with them if you are going to rely on them.

“And it may be hard to turn back,” Noam Cohen wrote in The New York Times in July of this year. “The Iranian protests may turn out to be the gateway crisis that introduced traditional news outlets to the thrill of harnessing the Internet during breaking news, whether serious or celebrity. Indeed, the Iranian hostage standoff 30 years ago was the gateway crisis that led to incessant TV coverage of news, first on ABC’s Nightline and later CNN and the rest of the cable news networks.”

But as it turned out in late June, the cable news channels instantly shelved all those tweets, Facebook pages and YouTube videos from Iranian protestors in favor of days of nonstop coverage, first of South Carolina governor Mark Stanford’s marital infidelity and then Michael Jackson’s death. In cable news’ one-story-all-the-time formula, celebrity once again topped everything and drove home the point that such a tabloid approach makes it difficult to squeeze in serious foreign coverage.

The fact that NPR is now the only major media outlet that is increasing its foreign reporting in response to surveys indicating listeners are interested in foreign news reinforces what we already know—only a select demographic appreciates the importance of in-depth foreign coverage.

It could be that the biggest job mainstream media have is to somehow educate the public about the importance of foreign news in a global post-Sept. 11 world, and to do that it might require just the sort of in-depth reporting and informed interpretation that it is moving away from.

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