Is the foreign correspondent in crisis?
While it’s true that the advent of the Internet and the subsequent disruption of journalism’s business model led to the slashing or downsizing of many foreign bureaus, the media experts and journalists who participated in our recent video conversation trained a critical—rather than nostalgic—eye toward the foreign correspondent of the past. Our participants emphasized the importance of nuanced, thought-provoking foreign affairs coverage and named several new developments that suggest American coverage of foreign affairs is more robust than it’s ever been before.
Idealizing the foreign correspondent of the past
“I don’t wax nostalgic for the old days,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. “When you think of the Vietnam era, you had some great reporters—Neil Sheehan, Jonathan Schell—but also gatekeepers. You had the ‘best and the brightest’ defining the narrative in those years.”
Lowell Bergman, the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Chair in Investigative Reporting at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, worked on the first TV/print collaboration, between CBS and The New York Times in 1996. “Nobody collaborated in the ‘past,'” Bergman said, in reference to the supposed golden age of journalism. “Now we’re seeing the sharing of information and multi-platform reporting.” The Panama Papers, which involved a consortium of 380 international journalists and 50 news outlets, is one such example of collaboration enabled by technological advances.
Bergman believes the next generation of reporters is using new technological developments to great advantage. “I think students have more ability to learn about other countries because of the Internet and jet planes,” said Bergman. “They can go places faster. They have a great foreign travel program at Berkeley to do stories. I’m surprised by the amount of money that’s available to young people or freelancers compared to when I started out.” Bergman mentioned organizations like the Pulitzer Center, which funds the work of young journalists, and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, which trains local people as reporters, as engines of journalistic innovation.
Despite journalism’s business model problems, which are part and parcel of the demise of the traditional foreign correspondent, young reporters are still interested in covering foreign affairs, and are finding the means to do so. “When I see 25 interns coming through The Nation each year, there is great interest in going out into the world and doing international coverage,” said vanden Heuvel. “They’re getting funding in different ways. They don’t want to end up being aggregators.”
The dangers of shallow foreign coverage
Failing to cover international affairs in a thorough, unbiased manner can have grave consequences. John Tirman, executive director and principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies, believes the American media failed to adequately cover the toll of the Iraq War on Iraqi citizens. “One of the things that grew out of this devastation was ISIS,” Tirman said. “When we plead for local involvement, local training, local empowerment in terms of traditional journalism, it’s not just to help the downtrodden of the earth. It’s also to help us. It’s to help us understand what’s going on in a much more direct way than we can from flying in people every now and then from New York.”
According to Tirman, even though the Internet enables on-the-ground blogging and citizen journalism that would have been unfathomable a few decades ago, this information won’t necessarily reach the average American. “There’s a multiplicity of voices,” Tirman said. “The Internet clearly has made this much easier to do. It’s a question of how you access reliable, informative, timely, insightful work. That’s something I don’t have an answer for, but we need to keep working at it.”
Our participants agreed on the importance of empowering journalists whose work challenges the assumptions and complacency of the mainstream media. “If we don’t have a full range of views, we have what Robert Perry has written about as group think,” said vanden Heuvel. “An informed citizenry is vital to democracy. I fear we’re witnessing a dumbing down of our media culture.”
While our access to situations on the ground in other countries may have improved, the advent of the Internet has also led to a merging of news and entertainment. Reporting about the costs of war on a population far away, for example, will likely receive far less attention than domestic issues. “How do you get people in this country interested in foreign coverage?” vanden Heuvel asked. “It seems to me that this has been a perennial problem for decades. One way—and this could be done without cheap grace or dumbing down or excessive American provincialism—is to find stories that are transnational but have strong roots in this country that people can relate to.”
New ways forward through technology
Patrick Lawrence, a foreign affairs columnist at Salon, believes that many Americans are seeking out comprehensive reporting that transcends what’s provided by the mainstream media. “When I came back from Asia in 2010, I said to myself: Unless I’m seeing things, Americans are eager, on the way to desperate, for another story,” said Lawrence. “The narrative is exhausted. We need to know what is going on in the world, and there is a growing suspicion that we don’t.”
Bergman believes journalism’s business model is gradually shifting from an advertising-based model that too often prizes sensationalism to a subscription-based model, which could result in thought-provoking journalism reaching a broader, more mainstream audience. “I think we’re going to see some very startling developments in the availability of news internationally, the proliferation of new outlets and new organizations, and more money going into it from the private sector,” said Bergman.
According to Bergman, relatively new tech giants like Amazon and Netflix are contemplating entering the international news space. New funding opportunities are emerging for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where Bergman works. “We’re beginning to see commercial possibilities and alliances and investors,” Bergman said. “I’m bullish on the future of in-depth reporting on all platforms.”
Technology has inarguably caused major problems for journalists both foreign and domestic, yet tech also has the power to elevate foreign coverage beyond anything reporters in the Vietnam era could have imagined. “The potential of these new technologies is mind-blowing,” said Tirman. “The question is how to utilize them effectively while we’re also promoting a civic culture.”