Bye, bye, foreign correspondents

 

Annenberg School of Communicaton and Berkman Center for Internet and Society organised in April 2008 a joint forum about participatory media and democracy: Media Re:Public. One of the panels was devoted to the future of journalism; there, a topic gained unexpected attention: do foreign correspondencies have any future in the current fast changing media landscape?

 

The question has been floating around for the past years. And many clues indicate that foreign correspondents won’t be among the information professionals of the future.

 

Solana Larsen, co-managing editor of Global Voices, consciously provoked attendants to Media Re:Public by predicting that foreign correspondents will have disappeared by 2013. And she is not the only one thinking like this: according to BBC editor John Simpson, we are clearly talking about “an endangered specie”.

 

Closings of international bureaus and international lay-offs have been frequent in the last years. According to Allisa Miller:

 

Television news networks have reduced the number of foreign bureaus by more than 50 percent over the past two decades. Similarly, the number of foreign correspondents working for U.S. newspapers dropped 25 percent between 2002 and 2006.

 

There are three main reasons for the ongoing shrinking of international journalism:

 

– It is dangerous: The war in Iraq has caused the death of 156 journalists in only 6 years; 63 reporters lost their life during the whole Vietnamese conflict (21 years).

– It is expensive.

– It faces growing competition: specially by bloggers and citizen journalists.

 

But if looked carefully, the issue losses its initial appearance of sharp yes/no dichotomy. The problem does not necessarily has to be resolved by the question “Will they exist or will they extinguish?”. The question might be, instead, “Will they adapt, and how?”

 

In fact, many of the ill omens related to foreign correspondents speak about change, and not about dissappearance. They relate to the need of improving international information, instead of eliminating it.

 

The take of Larsen, for example, is that media can no longer sustain the current way of making international news because it is expensive and it is based on a wrong “parachute journalism“: an overseas conflict erupts / a reporter arrives / he does not understand much / he compiles information fast / his media broadcasts it fast / the journalist leaves the country fast / he forgets the country fast / the public forget the conflict inmediatly:

 

How many more years will we have to watch foreign correspondents parachute into a region and pretend they know what’s going on? How many more reports coming out of the Middle East from hotel rooftops will be delivered by people who do not speak Arabic, or know what “the Green zone” in Iraq was called before coalition forces arrived

 

The solution for that might lay in what Cristopher Tulloch calls “stringers” (other people call them “indigenous/native correspondents): reporters who are native of the country where the conflict takes place, and not nationals of the media’s country. Larssen refers to them as “indigenous correspondents”. BBC, according to, already employs 400 of them.

 

Sringers use to work for less money and have a better knowledge of the zone, and because of these reasons some reporters consider them as a kind of unfair competitors. But in a World were borders are less and less important, accusations of this type can not be accepted. Moreover: who says that stringers will ruin foreign correspondent’s careers? Why can’t we envisage a system where the two of them collaborate and enrich from each other’s perspectives?

In SchizoFrenetic, the student Andrea Zat exposes some of the benefits and disadvantages of such an approach:

 

If we switched over to indigenous correspondents, we’d be exposed to a more global world view — and be focused more on a human race perspective versus a national one. News would need to be presented with greater context to understand the intricacies of the day’s events, which means sounds bytes wouldn’t be enough. International news pieces would get a bit longer.

 

The fact is that, as Allisa Miller reminds, demand for international news has increased and not decreased, so we cannot eliminate foreign correspondents role with the excuse that “public does not want to know about the World”. People want to know about what happens in faraway places, and we have to find the way of telling it to them. Stringers raise now the same fears that Internet brought in its first years of existence: it was said that the Net would finish with international reporters. As times goes bye, correspondents remain with us. They do not ressemble anymore the romantic figure of Kapucinsky, but they still tell us honestly how was the day inside the war.

 

If foreign correspondents dissapear, who will travel to dangerous places? Rebecca MacKinnon askes herself in “The World Wide Conversation ” (pdf).