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Less foreign news in UK papers – should we care?

By Sean Maguire
November 2, 2010
A newspaper seller organises British papers in his shop

A newspaper seller organises British papers in his shop

The UK’s Media Standards Trust asks if it matters that there is less foreign reporting being done by British reporters and printed in the British press. Yes, according to David Loyn, the BBC’s International Development correspondent and author of a foreword to an MST report entitled ‘Shrinking World’. Ignorance encourages insular values, aka prejudices, and the British voter will be discouraged from developing the understanding needed to cope in a fast-changing world, argues Loyn.

US journalism academics have long lamented that US newspapers can no longer afford the large networks of foreign correspondents they once deployed and have speculated on the cost to society of poor decision-making driven by the  ignorance of the electorate. The MST’s report tries to quantify the extent of the decline of foreign stories  in the UK print media (40 percent over three decades) but does not venture similar gloomy political analysis. Apart from Loyn’s concerns, the MST’s Martin Moore suggests just that extensive awareness of foreign issues will become the preserve of elites who read the likes of the Financial Times and the Economist, which have made a selling point of maintaining international coverage. Perhaps the difference between the US and Britain is the continued public service mission of the BBC that requires it to provide independent and impartial foreign reporting, which still has a large domestic audience on radio and television. There is no equivalent in the US, where mainstream television offers a selective and incomplete view of foreign news and NPR’s strong reporting has limited reach.

If you accept the argument that television cannot deliver the detail, argument and nuance of the printed word, is there a riposte to the concerns of the MST and doomsters elsewhere lamenting the decline of newspapers in the developed world?  The internet, of course, makes it easy to find copious amounts of news about everything, pulled together by aggregation services and offering perspectives on international issues palatable to just about every political and ideological taste. That’s both solution and problem, argues Moore, suggesting that trusted guides are needed for all but the most committed of news junkies to navigate the torrents of info streams. Nor does your average UK internet user hunt for news online. They are largely passive, armchair news consumers (or strap-hanging news consumers if they mostly read on their daily commute) who take the international news as it is served.

News lovers can go direct to the big international services like Reuters, which runs both UK and US breaking, financial and business news sites and has grown in size and reach as its newspaper clients have retrenched. For core reporting of international events UK newspapers still lean heavily on Reuters and agencies like the Associated Press and AFP.  A subtext of the MST report is that there is a distinctive British perspective on foreign news that has a unique value to a British audience and is threatened by reliance on international agencies. I don’t know if this British sensibility goes much beyond simply appealing to your reader. Reporters for Scottish newspapers covering foreign issues are notoriously told by their editors to ‘put a kilt on it’ when pitching a story, meaning they had to find the parochial angle.

There are other ways for British news organisations (or news firms of any nationality for that matter) to source foreign news besides relying on agencies and expensive full-time correspondents – stringers, citizen journalists, 24 hour news stations sponsored by various governments, and Twitter and Facebook searches. Each is problematic in its own way, argues Moore. (On the other hand there are downsides to the professional reporter model that the report does not dwell on, but which are often posited by believers in the democratising and empowering effect of the Internet). News feeds from non-governmental organisations or state bodies who have stepped into the information gap left by the decline of traditional models of reporting offer another option. Is it wise for newspapers to rely on foreign reporting done by NGOs whose purpose is to advocate a cause, or for television stations to use images of combat supplied by defence ministries that are necessarily one-sided? Noble intentions to be transparent by citing the source of such information often get forgotten.

Besides the economic pressures bearing down on newspapers that hinder them from reporting foreign affairs “properly” are there are other reasons for news organisations to turn inwards? Has obsession with celebrity and indulgence of the human need for diversion contributed to editorial unwillingness to tackle substantive but detailed foreign issues? The international scene is now just too complex, argues Moore. The straightforward black and white world of the Cold War has ended. It has given way to a thorny, multi-polar dynamic not reducible to the language of winners and losers that a reporter could once weave his story through. The global threat of terrorism, climate change’s ability to rewire our weather and the cost of the Western world’s banking systems being brought to its knees just do not grip like the peril of nuclear oblivion.

The MST suggests sensible and practical palliatives for the ailment it diagnoses and accepts cannot be cured. Among its recommendations – demand better sourcing so the use of third-party material is acknowledged, keep the quotas for international reporting for UK broadcasters and extend an expectation of reasonable journalistic standards to the reporting of NGOs and bloggers. And if we don’t, returning to the opening question, will it really matter? Unspecified dangers lurk in doing nothing to arrest the decline of professional foreign reporting, according to the report, including a muted ability to bear witness to the unknown abroad. Aren’t there stouter arguments for foreign reporting in our globalised, interconnected, mutally dependent world?

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