Our editors & readers talk
This is the text of a talk I gave to a seminar hosted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford on October 22nd.
Challenges of reporting politics for an international audience
I am not here to talk about what I don’t know so I will largely reflect on my work at Reuters, although I hope to offer insights that might apply to other news organisations that distribute across borders, in particular other international news service such as Dow Jones and Bloomberg, but perhaps also the Financial Times, the Economist, or even the BBC World Service.
We cover lots of themes at Reuters, including geo-politics and major world affairs such as nuclear proliferation, climate change or the rise of the BRIC states, but today I am focusing on our coverage of national politics.
First – we need to abandon any hoary preconceptions about the Reuters news file being dully utilitarian, about us serving as an ‘agency of record’ and simply being a tip sheet for newspapers and broadcaster.
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.
from Sean Maguire:
One of the global themes that Reuters news editors have picked as a focus this year is 'frontier markets.' These are less developed economies that don't yet qualify as BRIC-style 'emerging markets' but which are gradually opening up to foreign portfolio investment. Fund managers eager to diversify from lacklustre, recession-battered Western economies are touting such markets as the next big hope for turbocharged returns.
One such place is Nigeria. The West African giant is the quintessential frontier market, with its mix of promising opportunity, political instability, a reputation for dubious financial practices, a resource curse and reform ambition.
There is hope for journalism.
At least that is what I took away from the shining examples of the craft awarded prizes by the Kurt Schork Memorial fund this year.
Since 2002 the Fund has been honouring journalists for accomplished reporting that is all the more to be admired because they have worked as freelancers, without the security of being employed by a large news organisation. The Fund also honours local journalists; their particular bravery lies in working in the knowledge they cannot flee a country’s persecution and harassment, as foreign journalists may, because it is their homeland.
Last week I was told that Reuters has lost its ethical bearings. You’ve sacrificed the sacred tenet of accuracy by rushing to publish information without checking if it is true. Your credibility has suffered, the value of your brand will wither and the service you offer to clients has been devalued, I heard.
It was a meaty accusation, especially as it came in the midst of a debate on ethics in journalism held at the London home of ThomsonReuters, the parent of the Reuters news organisation. The charge came from former Reuters journalists and a senior member of the trustees body that monitors Reuters compliance with its core ethical principles.
from Afghan Journal:
On a hilltop in central Kabul, the relics of Soviet armoured vehicles sit in the shadow of an incongruously vast and empty swimming pool. A tower of diving boards looks down into the concrete carcass built by the Russians. Boys play football there and on Fridays the basin is used for dog fights; combat is the only option for the canine gladiators, as they cannot climb up the sheer, steep sides. From the vantage point you can see the city's graveyards, its bright new mosques, the narco-palaces of drug-funded business potentates and the spread of modest brick homes where most Kabulis live. It's a favourite spot for reporters when they need to escape the press of urgent events and get cleaner air in their lungs.
For years journalists have sought to tell stories that go beyond the conflict in Afghanistan. We've tried to portray this country - the crossroads of central Asia, the summer home of Moghul emperors, the cockpit of clashing empires - as more than a place of blood, deprivation and extremism. Amid the dust and the heat it has its oases of tranquility, its laughter and its charms. From the market stalls of sweet pomengranates that line the road in autumn to the rose gardens newly planted in central Kabul, Afghanistan is a place of thorny history, cultural complexity and spartan beauty.
from Sean Maguire:
The Media Standards Trust has begun a lecture series on 'Why Journalism Matters'. It is disconcerting that it feels we have to ask the question. The argument put forward by the British group's director Martin Moore is that news organisations are so preoccupied with business survival that discussion of the broader social, political and cultural function of journalism gets forgotten. It is a pertinent review then, given the icy economic blasts hitting most Anglo-Saxon media groups, and notwithstanding the recent examples of self-evidently broader journalistic 'value' produced by London's Daily Telegraph in its politican-shaming investigations into parliamentarians' expenses.
First up in the series was Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times, who cantered through the justifications for a vibrant, independent press. Watchdog, informer, explainer, campaigner, community builder and debater - those are the roles that journalism plays. The value that it brings is most evident by comparison with the unhealthiness of states where the press is not free, noted Barber, citing the struggles of the citizenry in China and Russia to hold their leaders to account.
from Global News Journal:
Former U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's attempts to be philosophical about 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns' gave him a reputation for slipperiness and cant. The phrases uttered in 2002 to explain the military's failure to improve security in Afghanistan have passed into folklore, alongside such gems as 'stuff happens,' which was his explanation for the looting that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
The 'known unknown' concept is a more useful tool in journalism than you would think from the derision heaped on Rumsfeld by reporters. As journalists we spend our time uncovering facts, reporting data, breaking news and offering insights into the meaning of events. We rarely stop to contemplate what we do not know, what we cannot know and what impact that ignorance has in shaping perceptions.
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.
Is there a responsibility owed by journalists to the countries we report on?
A big topic, for sure, and one I was thinking about during a debate organised by The Orwell Prize on ‘Is journalism failiing failing states?’ Ostensibly the panel were discussing the adequacy of coverage of places like Congo, Burundi and Afghanistan. Adequacy for what, you might ask, and the discussion revealed a gap between the role some wanted journalism to play in crisis zones and what it actually achieves. Some sense of duty to inform, to shine a light in dark places and to educate motivates a lot of coverage of the world’s trouble spots. Yet the high-minded pursuit of truth is compromised by the impatience of viewers and readers, who respond to human drama rather than deep detail and nuance. It is also compromised by the ego indulgence of reporters who put themselves rather than their subjects at the centre of a story. And it is compromised by the decreasing ability of big news organisations to fund foreign reporting. John Lloyd of the FT and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggested we can no longer expect to get in the mass media the complex information needed for deep understanding. We must turn to books, long-form journalism and blogs, he argued, which necessarily have smaller audiences.
So if ‘failed state’ reporting is often flawed, is it still worth doing? By and large yes, the panel agreed. For what purpose, though? That discussion touched on the efficacy of the journalism of engagement versus the school of dispassionate observation. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen recalled the coverage of the Bosnian war was motivated by a burning sense that the injustices and inhumanities of that conflict could not remain concealed. It was derided as ‘something must be done’ journalism by the then Conservative government in Britain, but arguably it had an effect on awakening public opinion. Panellist David Loyn of the BBC, who has just published on Afghanistan, wondered if coverage there since 2001 has actually been unhelpful. Over-simplification, distortions of history, failure to portray the perspectives of ordinary Afghans and unquestioning acceptance of a flawed Western strategy were hallmarks of most reporting on the confict, he argued.