Monday, 16 March 2009

The Changing Face of Foreign News Coverage

This piece ran on my Reuters AlertNet blog on 16 March 2009.

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While articles about the changing media landscape are these days as common as out-of-work journalists, we have been spoiled over the weekend with some excellent pieces about new media, foreign correspondents, and covering crisis zones.

Anand Giridhardas article in the New York Times, "These Days, No Reporting Behind a Nation's Back" is well worth a read. He starts off noting that, "Foreign correspondents no longer cover one place for the exclusive benefit of readers somewhere else. In the Internet age, we cover each place for the benefit of all places, and the reported-on are among the most avid consumers of what we report."

It's amazing that some people still don't get this. Even in 2009, I know people at some NGOs who still think that a quick comment to a journalist writing for a newspaper in some distant country X will somehow not be seen by the regime in country Y where they are working. And I know others who think that a report published on their organisation's website is unlikely to be noticed by the authorities in the country the report is about. But as Giridhardas explains: "'There, not here,' is over." Has been for some time.

But the author doesn't end with this. He looks at how the current information landscape could colour the foreign correspondent's writing, as they aim to accommodate the blogs dedicated to the subject and the expected flood of emails that they know will follow their reporting, quoting the New York Times' Roger Cohen:
"You hear a great range of views about what you are writing, and some of those views can be exciting or interesting or lead you in new directions in terms of what you write and subjects you choose. My hesitation is that this is a temptation to somehow write into that noise and stir it further and be in the noise because it's fun being in it, which I think can be a distraction."

In the 1990s, Mr. Cohen chronicled, in person, the horrors that accompanied Yugoslavia's dissolution. Today, correspondents doing such work can find their time being sucked away by the profusion online of viewpoints and images and tweets from the scene, which multiply and demand attention. But keeping abreast of the Internet chatter is not the same as bearing witness.

"Instead of looking at a Bosnian village or hillside or being in a room with a group of concentration-camp survivors or bereaved women," Mr. Cohen said, "you would have just been staring at a screen and dealing with the rage of the Serbian diaspora in Munich or Los Angeles."
Excellent stuff.

Of course, even the best advice for foreign correspondents will have ever decreasing value as the number of overseas journalists dwindles. But as a forward-looking article by Human Rights Watch's Carroll Bogert argues, NGOs are filling in the gaps in international reporting, and could do so more and more in future.

Written from the perspective of 2014 and casting an eye back over five years to see "How Journalism Got Saved", she projects step-by-step how field-based NGOs would move from helping traditional media obtain information from the ground, to producing field-informed media products themselves, to banding together to create a consortium that would act almost like a news agency of worldwide correspondents. She concludes:
In 2014, just as in 2009, the public continues to hold the media in low esteem, right down there with businessmen and politicians. The nongovernmental sector, meanwhile, still enjoys higher approval ratings than any of them. What we learned is that readers don't trust the information less because it doesn't come from the mainstream media. They trust it more.
Her article crystallises what a number of us here in the world of NGOs and international news have been murmuring about for a while now, and it's a conversation Reuters AlertNet itself has done much to promote. If you really want to know where we are all heading, surely this piece offers the clearest direction yet.

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