Without foreign coverage, we miss more than news
A lack of reporters posted abroad hampers our ability to grasp crises.
For years now, those of us working in and around international media have grown used to hearing about slashed foreign news budgets – an overseas bureau cut here, yet another correspondent post dropped there.
The shrinking of news from the far reaches of the globe is a problem only partially addressed by a few financially constrained news agencies and a couple of hopeful media upstarts with untried business models or limited audiences.
We do not need to wait for something more to hit us over the head to understand the implications of these changes. Two recent situations show us exactly what the world will be like when there are no regular foreign correspondents left.
The first is Somalia, where Western news coverage, particularly in the United States, has been extraordinarily shallow during the past two decades. When attention returned to the crisis last month, it was because of the capture of a US vessel by Somali pirates. Amid hero-worship and chest-thumping, the American media machine seemed to swell with pride that a new president with the world's largest military at his disposal could defeat a handful of lightly armed thugs.
Yet, few seemed to grasp the most basic fact of the story: Piracy is a symptom, not the disease, and lawlessness off the coast of Somalia will continue as long as anarchy is allowed to remain on land.
Hardly any news outlets covered the difficult struggle of new Somali President Sheikh Sharif and his attempts to reach out to radicals, which give rise to some limited optimism. Greater international support – and attention – for his efforts would be more illuminating than another facile skull-and-crossbones story, because ultimately only a stable Somalia is going to end piracy and its potential export of extremism.
Unfortunately, the danger on the ground makes Somalia extremely difficult to cover for foreign journalists, so we were stuck with stories of tangential importance, written like Hollywood film scripts from editorial offices thousands of miles away.
Another crisis unfolding mostly not before our eyes has been Sri Lanka, where in the past few months, the situation in the north- east became desperate for some 200,000 civilians trapped in an ever-shrinking "safe zone" between their government, which has been shelling them, and the cultlike LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebels, who have been using equally lethal force to prevent them from escaping.
A mass slaughter of civilians got under way as the Army's noose gradually tightened around them. Yet, even as deaths reached into the thousands and those injured topped 10,000, and even when video was available of the tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives, few in the US even heard there was a problem.
Despite a government ban on journalists working in the conflict zone, some international broadcast outlets have been trying to cover the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka: Al Jazeera English, BBC World Service radio, and BBC World News come immediately to mind. But try to find this enormous catastrophe on American TV – good luck.
In both cases, a lack of correspondents on the ground produced media ignorance.
Of course, with Somalia and Sri Lanka, the obstacles to reporters covering the stories are larger than staffing cuts abroad: Issues include government restrictions and security concerns.
But still, these situations show us what it is like when Western news organizations – for whatever reason – do not have long-serving correspondents in the field. When they have no eyes and ears following a situation directly, understanding the complexities becomes nearly impossible and journalists are unable to report more deeply than "hero saved" or have to resort to simply ignoring some news altogether.
A respected staffer in a field bureau is able to call the editor back home and say, "There's something big going on here," or "In all my years in this country, I've never seen anything like this before," or "This is news; we need to cover this." Without anyone making that pitch internally, the chance of missing out is going to be greater.
With these two crises, we understand what it will be like when the last foreign correspondent collects his or her last month's salary and turns out the lights in the last overseas news bureau. We will get superficial coverage of issues that are hugely important, we will miss real threats to our security, and we will fail to know about – and thus potentially help stop – mass murders in progress.
But we do have options other than resigning ourselves to ignorance about the world around us.
"The Internet" in general is not a solution, because the online proliferation of information about foreign affairs is more often than not simply ill-informed commentary. Nor is it "citizen journalism," which is about as appealing an idea as "citizen dentistry."
What we need to look for – and support – is professional news-gathering capacity on the ground. In short, check the datelines.
For TV news, the BBC still has a large number of reporters in the field, as does Al Jazeera English, and the result is quality on the screen. They both cover more world news from the ground than any of the major US news TV outlets. The BBC news runs on many PBS stations in the US, and though Al Jazeera English has faced difficulties getting American cable companies to carry it, the tide now seems to be turning. At the end of April, it became available to viewers throughout the Washington area, and it will roll out to 20 other cities in the coming months. You can also, of course, watch it online.
Another news source with an impressive network of correspondents around the world is Global Post, which has come into existence specifically to address the problem of sliding foreign news coverage. It has been cleverly creating a team by hiring journalists and others who are in the field already and giving them a status somewhere between staff and stringer. Given how much they are paid, it's a part-time job for most, but if Global Post can keep this model in the black, it may offer a glimpse of how professional overseas journalism could be maintained in the future.
Finally, though non-news organizations have neither the capacity nor the aim to provide daily news, they can help address the need – to a certain extent. More people are turning to major nongovernmental organizations with extensive on-the-ground networks, such as Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group (where I work), to provide them with reliable information from abroad. It cannot be a coincidence that as overseas journalists become rarer, Crisis Group is picking up more online readers and e-mail subscribers. The trick is for the rest of us to remember that they cannot fully replace the disappearing foreign correspondents.