Going the way of these guys? [hugovk / Flickr]
On January 23rd, the legendary Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski died. The next day The Boston Globe closed its last three foreign bureaus. Kapuscinski was the inspiration to a generation of foreign correspondents, Poland’s only reporter outside its own borders during the Cold War who, since he couldn’t cover everything, had the latitude to report at length what he found interesting. The Globe, like The Baltimore Sun and other smaller-city papers, was forced to reduce its foreign coverage to save editorial jobs closer to home.
The outside world won’t disappear. The Globe will borrow from the foreign desk of The New York Times; we still have the AP and Reuters and about a million journalists in Iraq. But what, then — as we consider the model of Kapuscinski — is the value of a voice? Do we lose something with the disappearance of longer-form, magazine-style reporting from abroad? Is there a value in having more than two Americans covering the same country?
And, more broadly, what are we learning about the rest of the world, and how are we learning it? As Joshua Hendrickson writes on our site, war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography. Should we be covering countries before they become hotspots? So we understand why they do, when they do? Beyond the wire services, what’s the model for foreign coverage in the future? Is it Global Voices? The young, unattached, motivated freelancer?
Director, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
Former Foreign Correspondent for the Boston Globe
Bureau chief for the Americas, Al-Jazeera English
Allison Kaplan Somer
- Extra Credit Reading
Ethan Zuckerman, Are foreign correspondents going extinct? Or just changing their stripes?, My Heart’s in Accra, January 26, 2007: “Foreign reporters are an endangered species in the US today . . . Newsday, which had unique and exciting Africa coverage under his leadership, now has only four overseas employees and will close all bureaus by the end of this year. They’re not alone. The Boston Globe is shuttering its four overseas bureaus, leading Christine Chen in Foreign Policy’s Passport to observe that there’s now only one foreign correspondent for each 1.3 million people in the US.”
Vanessa Gezari, “Freelancing Overseas: Casting Off the Parachute”, Poynter Online, Winter 2004: “There will always be war reporting, but American readers in particular would be well-served by more reporting on peace — or what passes for peace — in far corners of the world.”
Michael Hirschorn, “Get Me Rewrite!”, The Atlantic Monthly, December 2006: “John Vinocur writes a great weekly column for the International Herald Tribune, but anyone who cares about Europe can tap hundreds of other sources in a matter of minutes.”
Howard Kurtz, “Journalism’s Rising Risk Factor”, The Washington Post, August 28, 2006: “Being a foreign correspondent is one of the world’s most thankless jobs. Those who ply the journalistic trade around the globe are increasingly subjected to bombings, shootings, kidnappings or simply being jailed on spying charges.”
Elisabeth Witchel, “The Fixers”, Dangrous Assignments, Winter 2004: “In a climate of heightened danger for the press, local fixers, though they may blend in more than Westerners, have become targets themselves because of their association with international media outlets. And as fixers’ work becomes both more substantial and more dangerous, news organizations face tougher questions in navigating this new terrain in international journalism.”
In 2002, I spent a great deal of time in Iraq and all through the Middle East reporting on how people in those Muslim countries looked at the impending American confrontation with Iraq. And what struck me, a) was how few American reporters were in Iraq in 2002, and b) the fact that my perspective — what I saw in Iraq moving around the country interviewing people who were openly contemptuous of Saddam Hussein — it was quite different from the picture that was being painted by the media at large in the United States and by our government about the totalitarian regime that was on the march. I didn’t see that. That’s not what I saw.
The problem I think we got into in the run-up to the war on Iraq, the failure of the meda, the huge failure on our part to do a good job covering that, had to do with something else, which I think is a sort of devaluation of ground truth. That because we have big media, because we have CNN, and our foreign editors and managing editors can sit in the confines of their offices and feel like they’re watching what’s going on, they’ve dismissed those reports from the ground.
I think that as we move forward, we’re going to find that these very same brand names, these very same newspapers that are facing such a difficulty right now are going to be seen as holding the key for the future, which is the certification of, “this is a news source or a blog that’s worth reading according to a trusted news source.” I think that that’s a role that’s going to increase in value over time. There’s so much conversation going on out there; we need to trim it back to figure out what is interesting, what is important.”
The one distinction with Al-Jazeera is that we make no distinction between foreign and domestic news. We don’t have a foreign desk. Our audience is global, and our perspective is always global.
[Bloggers are] a different kind of foreign correspondent because their readers can relate to them, not just because they’re American or they’re coming from the same culture, but because they’re talking about news events from the ground, in terms of how a regular person would see things.
Allison Kaplan Somer
I’d like to throw out the counterintuitive thought that it’s not so much the foreign correspondent that has disappeared as the broad audience has disappeared.