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How to report politics for an international audience

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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. We also need to abandon any lingering notion that we are the voice of Britain – Reuters is now the news brand of a multinational professional information firm majority owned by a Canadian family, headquartered in New York and listed on the New York and Toronto stock exchanges. Another notion – that we are the avid stenographers of the finance industry, handkerchiefing capitalism’s every sneeze and underwriting corporate folly by taking the self-serving platitudes of industry titans at face value? Well that’s another stereotype. What we aim to be is an agenda-setting news service for a global audience of professionals, including media and finance professionals, delivering content rich in analysis and insight, with multiple “sections” (to use newspaper speak), including a financial commentary service, direct to consumer websites, a video service akin to a financial YouTube, and lifestyle and entertainment coverage. Our development from the agency of record model is a response to the structural challenges posed to the news industry in last decade by disruptive technology, economic turmoil and emerging competitors. The challenge boils down to this: how do you capture and retain audiences and have a sustainable business model for doing so. It’s an adaption struggle faced by all “old” international news organisations that are in the business of covering national events for audiences in other countries. In light of that, how do we go about reporting national politics, and why? We can’t match the staff of national newspapers. We don’t have vast teams lapping up lobby gossip. Don’t have the 24hr television news magnet pulling politicians in to talk to us. We are no-vote media, so leaders don’t often leak to us. We don’t have a political agenda so government PR people prefer to hand out information to sympathetic media that will oblige with some partisan spin. Our stories don’t appear on newsstands, on mashed up dead trees, so we rarely get that “shout it to the rooftops” quality of great, screaming, above the fold newspaper scoops. And we operate in real time with all the perils that urgency brings to copy quality and news editing. Our stories have to travel, so jargon and local terminology needs to be decoded for an international audience. We have to be clear in our language, in explaining what parties stand for, and in explaining why a particular issue matters, or surprisingly doesn’t, in one or other country e.g. why do the French riot over pension reform, while in Britain voters glumly shrug when told they will have to work longer? Do these restrictions mean all we can offer is a dumbed down account, the lowest common denominator story, an account of national difference and idiosyncrasy that will delight the distant reader but leave them none the wiser about what is really taking place? Maybe that was how it was, but we can’t get away with that now. A couple of years ago I visited a currency trader based in Singapore who worked for a large Malaysian bank. He traded sterling and was typical of the kind of well-educated professional news consumer we need to serve well. I had expected to discuss Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and efforts to deal with global financial crisis. Instead we talked about how hard it was to get a mortgage in Britain, where people were buying or not buying houses and what voters thought of schools, hospitals and levels of crime. Why? He wanted a balanced view of factors driving voter behaviour. He needed something beyond economic data, opinion polls and tendentious reporting of special interest issues. It was also clear that if Reuters did not give him a real sense of the mood in Britain he knew perfectly well he could get it elsewhere. He could set up RSS feeds from newspapers, track blogs and Twitter feeds, and watch British television news on the internet. If he had the time and inclination he could scrape the web to get something of a view of Britain without us. So what do we do to give this customer, or any other outside the UK, a distinctive view of UK politics? Or any other set of national politics, for that matter? Here I am taking for granted some bedrock attributes. We still have to break news, work sources, jump on big stories and get the facts out there — all the obvious stuff that is the backbone of good journalism. Beyond that – what’s our formula – and by extension perhaps, the formula that other international news organisations are adopting. 1) We must be expert and detailed. We can no longer write down to people. We can’t condescend. We are dealing with audiences with high expectations of sophisticated, smart political coverage, who will challenge oversimplification and generalisation. We’ve had to raise our game globally on national political reporting. We need a bit of colour and flavour in stories but audiences also demand detail. Detail nails an issue down, illustrates a theme and drives a decision. Online and on screens there are no space constraints, so we can be more illuminating. There is a great appetite for explanatory, background and in-depth material. 2) We have to be predictive and selective. We must offer the ‘what next’ on a story. We need less of what has happened and more of ‘what might happen.’ Accordingly we have devised new formats that look at potential outcomes and assess their probability. It’s a real challenge to do this well, to analyse impartially and not speculate wildly. We must be selective, ignoring local fascinations and froth, the white noise of events like Question Time, the weekly parliamentary dingdong debate between the British prime minister and leader of the opposition. Instead we look at whether policy on an issue will change. We have to take issue and chew it. For example, our special report on how one big UK city will be hit by spending cuts illustrated the wider theme of austerity measures hitting Europe. Incidentally in the course of reporting that item in Birmingham our reporters broke news the city was considering asset sales to Middle East investors. City fathers backed away from the plan after we revealed it. 3) Stay neutral but stay engaged. Have perspective but don’t take sides. On the morning after the UK government announced its four-year programme of deep spending cuts the headline in the conservative Daily Telegraph was “Cuts leave middle class £10,000 worse off.”  By contrast the liberal Guardian newspaper’s headline was “Axe falls on the poor.” Our take was: “Britain slashes spending, raises retirement age. …unprecedented cost-cutting drive…that will test the strength of economy and of the govt.” For foreign audience I would contend this is informative, dispassionate and forward-looking. We need to convey the passion of the argument without partaking in it. For instance – what drives the Tea Party in the United States? Instead of fixating on their more quirky aspects we have looked at what has driven their emergence, in particular the structural economic challenges that mean many US jobs that disappeared in the recession will not come back. That has translated into anger. Then we asked: Can the Tea Party convert that anger into influence? And what will that influence do to policy-making, given the disconnect between the cries of voters for spending cuts and their cries for tax cuts. Both cries are dear to Republicans but few argue that you will make a dent in the worryingly large deficit if you do both. If that’s the formula then what practically do we distil from our chemistry? Does it deliver the distinctive coverage that meets the criteria of being worth paying for? The argument can’t often be proved by citing a single story. It’s rather the package of content that a reader signs up for, and Reuters offers far more than national political coverage. So it is perhaps best to offer a couple of small examples that illustrate a wider approach and leave you to decide if they help make the case. One contrast would be between our coverage of looming UK defence cuts and that in the national press. The conservative Daily Telegraph, notoriously the house journal of the national military elite, was serially leaked to by rival top brass at the Ministry of Defence who warned of devastation to their respective services if government cuts went ahead as planned. It was great journalism and full credit to the paper’s reporters. But was it hard for readers to get beyond the lobbying and military rivalries played out across the paper to concrete detail on what was likely to happen? This story mattered to our customers, because Britain is a big military player and a big defence spender; it had both geo-political impact and investor interest. We got the sources we needed at the MOD and kept playing it straight, reporting what we could confirm at each stage of the negotiations in what was a rapidly changing picture. We were pretty much on the money with spending on carriers, cuts to jets and delays to replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system – shares in defence contractors Babcock and BAE Systems fell. Another example: Brazil’s presidential election went to a second round because last minute voter concerns about the social views of lead candidate Dilma Rousseff deprived her of outright victory. Some news organisations led by describing her as a former Marxist guerrilla tripped up by her support for abortion. Reuters described Rousseff as “the hand-picked successor to President Lula who has pledged to continue policies that have made Brazil one of world’s hottest emerging markets.” The contrast is between the personal interest and the immediate versus the “so what” and the “what next.” Rousseff was duly elected in the second round as the importance of social issues to voters fell away. I have suggested that changes to how Reuters reports national politics for international audiences are an example of how news organisations can respond to technological, financial or competitive challenges. We don’t always hit the mark with our coverage but directionally we think we’ve got it right. I will leave it to you to decide what lessons can be drawn from our experience and applied elsewhere in the news industry.

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.

Less foreign news in UK papers – should we care?

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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.

from Sean Maguire:

Want to make clean money in Nigeria? Trade stocks.

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A road-side banana seller in troubled city of Jos

A road-side banana seller in troubled city of Jos

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.

Journalism you can admire, and honour

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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.

Are we now too speedy for our own good?

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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:

Pomegranates, dust, rose gardens and war

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s1On 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 raw and the crafted

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:

What do we know about Kim Jong-il and North Korea?

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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.

Does foreign news exist anymore?

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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. 

What does journalism owe to its subjects?

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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.

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