Our editors & readers talk
Does foreign news exist anymore?
One of the side remarks at a debate on journalism I attended was that large British news organisations no longer cover ‘foreign news’. They cover ‘world news’. The argument at a London awards ceremony was that in a globalised world, where a multiplicity of perspectives are available on the Internet, news editors should no longer get correspondents (us) to write about foreigners (them). The belief is that the Us/Them dichotomy reinforces harmful stereotypes and encourages shallow reporting rather than deep and detailed journalism.
Much of the debate was about whether contemporary Anglo-Saxon journalism is doing enough to get beyond stereotyping. Amid that was the nagging fear that audiences do not want to part with their prejudices and that news editors will not give correspondents the opportunity to persuade them. The panel of correspondents lamented the diminishing volume of international reporting in the pages of the mainstream press and on the news programmes of major broadcasters. We know the reasons – competition for viewers and readers, pressure on budgets, an assumption that news from distant places is hard to make relevant to fickle audiences. There was a touch of vocational insecurity to the discussion. Nobody likes to think their profession is changing and is being pushed from the limelight. The panelists were reminded there never really was a golden age for foreign news (if I may be excused the term) and correspondents abroad had always struggled to grab the front page. There was some irony as well to hearing BBC friends worry about the corporation’s appetite for international journalism when, as panel moderator Allan Little pointed out, its roster of foreign correspondents has gone from 10 to over 200 in the last two decades.
The thornier question was does mainstream English-language journalism deliver an accurate portrayal of the world? Who better to probe the issue than the winners of the annual Kurt Schork award, which celebrates compelling and insightful journalism? Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who won for his bold exposes of human trafficking in his native Ghana, doubted if journalists parachuted from abroad could understand his country effectively. You don’t have the language skills and you don’t have the time it needs, he remarked. Nicholas Schmidle, a young American, won in the freelance category for his stories from Pakistan and Afghanistan on the complexities of the Islamist insurgency. He too spent months on his articles and noted they could not have been done without a network of trusted local guides to help him navigate the issues.
The BBC’s Bridget Kendall spoke of the tyrannous power of televison images that solidify a cliched view of the world. Print and radio’s spoken word allow more freedom to challenge the settled view. The United States, in particular, was accused of living in a bubble of isolation that its television news programmes rarely challenge with fresh global perspectives. Schmidle said it was not as if Americans did not want to know. “The demand is there, but the demand is not meeting the funds.”
How else to better reflect the realities of the world? The internet is making space for different views but is mainstream journalism opening the door to seeing things differently? Panel participant Peter Apps, a Reuters correspondent left in a wheelchair by a horrific traffic accident while on assignment in Sri Lanka, called for a more racially diverse workforce in journalism. He recalled being sharply but correctly upbraided by non-white colleagues in South Africa if his articles contained a hint of colonial colouring. Audience members reminded the panel that the BBC World Service does a fine job reporting Africa from African perspectives. One view from the debate floor was that minority groups within newsrooms have a responsibility to challenge stereotypes.
Schork, who died while on assignment for Reuters in Sierra Leone in 2000, spent his short journalistic career staring at the grimmer realities of the world and trying to strip the layers of obfuscation and deceit from around them. He was always ready to challenge the complacencies and self-deceptions within journalism as much as in the world he reported upon. Good journalism requires that neither challenge stop.