Why The World Still Needs Full-Time Foreign Correspondents
By Eric Johnston
Along with polar bears and black rhinos, the plight of the full-time foreign news correspondent is a subject of growing concern among arm-chair zoologists who fear the magnificent beast, which once roamed the world at will and congregated at exotic watering holes, is now on the verge of extinction. As the years progress, sightings in the field grow fewer. Spotting a genuine full-time foreign correspondent on the hunt is as difficult as spotting an Amur leopard in the Siberian wilderness.
Anarchists in media studies and high tech would have you believe this is wonderful news. The communications technology revolution of the past two-plus decades, they assert, means anyone with a computer is now a “foreign correspondent” – a comrade-in-arms to help break the back of corporate media, thus leading to a better-educated public, outbreaks of democracy, peace and love, etc., etc. Buy an iPhone or iPad and you, too, can report on developments in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, the jungles of Borneo, or the trendy streets of Copenhagen, Mumbai, Cape Town and Tokyo —all from your apartment. Your “friends’’ on a half dozen social media networks will constantly yearn for your deep analysis of world developments, the result of hard-won wisdom gained over long minutes of Googling.
As English is now the main international language of communication, there are plenty of fellow “reporters’’ in far-flung lands whom you can tap for information in a common tongue. If not, no worries. Computer translation has advanced to the point where most languages can be rendered into good, if not excellent, English. Thus, the “InstaJournalist” with the right technical skills can, the proud citizens of Utopia conclude, offer an accurate picture of what’s going on overseas via on-line translations of Arabic, Hindi, or Japanese news sites and blogs by anonymous users. Certainly a more accurate picture, they insist, than that offered by a traditional foreign correspondent with long years of experience and outdated ideas about the importance of careful editing and confirming the facts.
Well, not quite. Putting aside the obvious questions of trustworthiness and reliability of the many Instajournalist-generated reports due to their second or third-hand nature, it’s plain that computers can’t do all the work (yet). Thus, freelance journalists proliferate. Available in all sizes, shapes, temperaments and talents, and far cheaper than a full-time correspondent, harried, cost-conscious editors and producers are delighted to have a stable of ready, willing, and able Knights of the Pen (or Video Camera) at their beck and call. Don’t like Freelancer A’s attitude after he complained bitterly about being stiffed on expenses? Just e-mail his competitor, Freelancer B, who never complains. Even when he gets stiffed on expenses. Feel that Freelancer C is becoming difficult to work with because she’s reluctant to take late-night phone calls for story requests she criticizes as trivial? Freelancer D is willing to jump on your perfectly reasonable request at 11 p.m. to churn out 1,000 words or file a video piece by 4 a.m. her time on the lady who turned her house into a museum for used paper clips.
With the freelance system, reporters must often tailor their lives, their honor, and their fortunes to the whims of those they may never have met and probably never will. If they’re lucky, they work consistently with ethical, professional organizations that edit well and pay on time, and in the full amount. If they’re unlucky, they’re asked to do last-minute rewrites and reshoots, and then spend hours chasing down payment that was promised months ago but has yet to materialize because (1) the assignments editor sent the invoice to the wrong person; (2) the payroll clerk got the bank details wrong, just went on vacation, and won’t return until next month; or (3) the editor who commissioned the piece suddenly quit and nobody else in the office has ever heard of the freelancer.
Whatever the journalistic advantages of an expanding freelance system (and there are many), there’s no doubt that, for media firms, it’s the short-term financial advantage that matters most. Combined with the aforementioned technology advances making citizen journalists of us all, it’s no wonder the traditional full-time foreign correspondent looks like a candidate for the IUCN’s Red List.
That is the great irony. The tech utopians and anti-corporate media types, well-meaning and sincere though they may be, have been joined in their crusade to run the traditional foreign correspondent to ground by the very people both groups profess to hate: hard-hearted, cold-eyed, traditional corporate media. Not that the attempt by the latter is anything new.
As was documented as long ago as 1983 in Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly, boards of directors at major media are far more interested in stockholder profits than in public- service journalism. They were cutting newsroom staff years before the advent of the Internet. Then, the end of the Cold War in Europe in the early 1990s meant high-cost foreign correspondents in particular were no longer automatically defended in smoke-filled executive rooms as indispensable
By the time the first Clinton came along and started promoting a corporate media-friendly Democratic Party at home, it was clear a posting to London, Moscow, Beirut, Rome, or Tokyo was looked upon less favorably by senior editors and bean counters than had been the case a few years previously. Instead, the job was increasingly seen as a waste of money better spent on entertainment news or executive editor salaries. The age of cuts in foreign news reporting by Western media accelerated. In Tokyo, for example, bureau after bureau closed or scaled back in the 1990s. Some moved to Beijing or Bangkok, where it was cheaper, and where the editors believed there was more news.
True, foreign correspondents were still to be found at Associated Press, Reuters, and other wire services. But that was because they provided round-the-clock bulletins and news reports to thousands of newspapers, TV stations, and corporate clients worldwide at a fixed monthly cost, the kind of “just the facts, ma’am’’ stories that could be reworked by an anonymous, low-paid subeditor at a local news organization with no objections from the reporters in the field who filed it. Wire service reporters themselves started to refer to their jobs as the “McDonald’s of Journalism’’—ever-more standardized writing styles that were the same regardless of topic. A big lead paragraph, hold the writer’s opinion, and a side order of expert quotes.
Of course, wire service reporting was often less a job of “correspondence’’ and more one of stenography. First-person reporting using subjective language, irony, deadpan humor, wit, and alliteration in an attempt to capture complex truths was often absent, replaced by reporting that was usually a mere collection of facts and a bit of context (but not too much, lest somebody out there either not understand or take offense). Old-fashioned foreign correspondence was clearly in danger. With fewer exceptions, media firms decided foreign news from a full-time correspondent was much less cost-effective than what the wire services could turn out/churn out. Nor could television and radio stations easily justify the huge costs of staffing an overseas office with full-time reporters, technicians, and the massive costs of reporting, editing, and producing stories.
The result was that wire service reporting in general but especially from abroad became ever-more ubiquitous, ending up on the Internet where it could be accessed for next to nothing. That, in turn, forced newspapers and other media to do the same thing with their original reporting. And this is the first mistake we in the media made when it became clear the Internet was not just another communications tool or fad: We failed to adequately show the public the information they read for next to nothing via the virtual world of cyberspace could be produced only via hidden, but very real, costs incurred by real people in the real world.
One tragic, unintended result was that an entire generation came of age in the 1990s believing information should be, if not free, than almost free. It was never understood, or had been ignored in the rush to log on, how much money, paid for by the media firms (which really meant traditional advertisers), was needed to not only gather information but also ensure it was as accurate as could be when it reached publication or was broadcast. In an ever-expanding Internet universe with its countless free news websites, to demand people pay more, not less, for news they did not want or feel they needed was not only impractical. It was also a violation of “free’’ speech, now taken literally by an ever-more Internet-savvy public.
This led to the second fundamental mistake we in the media made: We failed to convince the public in financially sustainable numbers that some stories need to be supported not because they make you feel good about yourself but because they are important to the world we live in.
Such as foreign news stories. As inter-connected global problems ranging from the local effects of post-Cold War liberalism and expanding American imperialism to climate change and the threat of pandemics became more obvious, it was ever-more crucial that people, sucked into their Matrix-like virtual worlds, understand that what happened far away still had relevance to what was happening at home. Especially to decisions by one’s own government or company that impacted those in far-away lands.
Everyone agreed that foreign correspondents on the ground could provide the necessary reporting to better inform the discussion on what readers and viewers would like those decisions to be. But what kind of reporters should be filing those reports was a journalistic question that grew ever-more difficult to answer. Popular culture and history also intertwined to create public images of traditional correspondents that are iconic but also difficult to set aside when in pursuit of modern, objective, and practical solutions to save the species.
Thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Foreign Correspondent (and a much lesser known B-grade flick Tokyo File 212) as well 20th century stories of foreign correspondents making history — think Edward R. Murrow’s radio broadcasts during The Blitz of London in 1940 – the myths and legends of those dashing heroes of yore, racing around glamorous capitals in trenchcoats and fedoras, meeting dissident painters and politicians in bohemian cafes late at night, or broadcasting live from the scene of a genocide or clash with government troops remain the primary positive media images of the trade. Granted a measure of respect by the public and wide latitude by management, the foreign correspondent was viewed as, if not always noble, then at least better than the rabble on the city desks, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking cads who hung around police stations, courthouses, and seedy bars looking for sensational stories of crime and corruption.
In reality, as documented in Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?, a 2010 report by the Reuters Institute and Oxford University, there was often a great deal of waste and laziness in foreign bureaus. A correspondent might not file a story for weeks, perhaps months, while out who-knew-where doing who-knew-what. All the while drawing a full-time salary plus expenses. Foreign correspondents ran their own little kingdoms, enjoying a degree of financial freedom that could provoke jealousy back on the city desk or in the lifestyle section. When the international mail arrived (via a Cunard liner or the PanAm Clipper,) it often contained envelopes stuffed with receipts for goods and services the green-eyeshade brigade found dubious at best and illegal at worst. Legendary British foreign correspondent James Cameron once reportedly charged his bosses 1,000 pounds for the burial of a camel he’d used on assignment.
That was the kind of thing senior editors who had done a stint abroad understood. They knew a degree of flexibility on what constituted “legitimate” expenses was needed. They ran interference between the far-off correspondent and penny-pinching accountants who could not comprehend why a reporter in a dusty frontier town, isolated jungle village, or urban war zone didn’t get an itemized receipt for services rendered from the minor warlord, emerald smuggler, or jack-of-all-trades “entrepreneur” they met in the café or the bar. However, over the last two decades, as young corporate types –and the Internet– moved into editorial rooms and cut back on foreign bureaus, and veteran editors moved out into the desolate wastelands of sales, advertising, and public relations, the levels of sympathy and tolerance within management for huge expenses incurred by globe-trotting foreign correspondents dropped.
Of course, there was the other kind of foreign correspondent, the well-heeled type from a respectable family and graduate of a famous East Coast university who always knew who the ambassadors were, how to tell a duke from a count, and which wines to order with the Beef Wellington or grilled swordfish. If they worked in television, chances are they commanded not only generous expense accounts but also salaries that put them in a different tax bracket from their fellow hacks. This led to the false belief among television viewers that foreign correspondence paid extremely well. Certainly better than whatever job most happened to be doing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While many established foreign correspondents, either full-timers or freelancers, have incomes that place them in the upper middle-class, far more are struggling to make ends meet. Not a few moonlight as ghostwriters and editors, or teach the occasional class in order to make sure the house and car aren’t repossessed. Absent a trust fund and unable to amass a fortune playing the ponies, video poker, or the stock market, they are distracted by the need to earn cash. None can afford to say no to outside, non-journalistic income, which comes at the expense of time and often money needed to (eventually) become a financially successful foreign correspondent.
Other accusations long leveled against traditional foreign correspondents had to do with doubts over their competence as observers. Many did not really speak or read the language of the country to which they were assigned. The better ones whose native language was English might do well in French. Especially if they traveled around Europe or the Middle East. Most had enough Arabic, Russian, or Chinese to talk their way into taxis and hotels. But unless they spent more than a few years in-country and became truly fluent, they relied heavily on underpaid, anonymous local staff to do everything from set up interviews with the Prime Minister to translate local newspapers to pay off whoever needed paying off so that the foreign correspondent could get the story.
In other words, it was the foreign correspondent’s job to observe on a general level, much as an intelligent, but linguistically limited, tourist would. The resulting analysis, much like that of a tourist, might be based less on their own questioning of sources and more on how local assistants who handled the details saw things when asked. Not surprisingly, those staff members were not always averse to telling the foreign correspondent what they thought he or she wanted to hear instead of what was true.
A second, related criticism was that, as the traditional foreign correspondent was not an expert on a particular country or culture, it was impossible for him or her to convey a fair and accurate picture of what was really going on. There is much merit to this argument and I have used it myself on numerous occasions with friends and total strangers. However, caution is in order.
First, it`s not merely a question of conveying the thoughts and feelings of people by reporters who are linguistically and culturally fluent local residents. Rather, it’s a question of whether that which is being conveyed is being done in a way that is not only truthful, but also resonates with those receiving the report. Hence, one’s knowledge of the country and culture one is speaking to should ideally be as good as, if not better than, one’s knowledge of the country and culture one is speaking from. Otherwise, the “truth’’ may not matter because the message that contains it will fail to resonate with readers and viewers “back home” on an intellectual or emotional level.
In other words, this is not a problem of simply finding bilingual local correspondents who spent time in the country where the media organ is based. It’s about finding reporters with a natural sense of how to get the story from local sources in a way that demonstrates a high degree of knowledge, street smarts, and common sense, and an ability to convey that knowledge in a way that demonstrates a high degree of knowledge, street smarts, and common sense about the culture to which the information is being conveyed.
Such correspondents are not normally discovered among eager, academically bright university students who want to dabble in journalism abroad before they head off to graduate, law, or business school, join an NGO, start a business, or apply to work at the United Nations or Foreign Ministry. Nor are they likely to be found among sincere, hard-working, and often courageous veteran journalists of the country in question who are incredible sources of knowledge, information, and contacts within their own country, but know little about the outside world and can barely speak your language.
Where might they be? A good place to start looking is among experienced foreign media freelancers as well as among long-term expatriates and locals who possess the knowledge and communication skills to be excellent foreign correspondents if only given the chance to do it as a proper career. It is, therefore, past time that Western media organs in particular reinvest in full-time correspondents, and ensure their role is suited to the realities of the 21st century. A partial list of ideas for saving the endangered species, keeping all of the above ideals and realities in mind, would include:
- Hiring a citizen or resident of a country where the foreign bureau is to be based on the condition that, while their future might include a posting to the home office, it will not include being sent to a third country in which the correspondent was not already linguistically and culturally fluent. The job of the 21st century correspondent working full-time should be, to a degree one did not see in the previous century, to become an expert on not only the country or region where they are stationed but also an expert on conveying information about that country or region in a way non-specialists also understand.
- Emphasizing that a foreign correspondent is just that—a full-time correspondent, whose work includes not only news and feature stories (print and broadcast) but also bulletins, updates, and reports on the country in question. These might not be printed under the correspondents’ byline but would be used within the media firm as material for company-published books, specially-commissioned reports, private briefings to advertisers, or other uses as deemed appropriate by the media organization. To a degree, this is already happening at select media.
- Making the foreign bureau a conduit for communication between that country and the media’s readers and viewers via sponsoring various town-hall type meetings over the Internet and, when possible, direct symposiums involving the public. We have the technology to do this cheaply. What is needed is the imagination and will on the part of the media firms to make it happen. In the process, new readers and, hopefully, advertisers and financial supporters will follow.
- Explaining to readers and viewers with every issue and broadcast that foreign news is often neither cheap nor glamorous, but that, given the multitude of interconnected global issues the world confronts, it’s necessary, regardless of expenses incurred.
- Explaining with every issue and every broadcast that sustained verbal support for foreign news from readers and viewers is desperately needed because of modern advertising pressures to not spend money on that which does not lead to the greatest possible short-term dividends to stockholders. If a media organ’s editors and producers do not see active public support for the firm’s efforts at more foreign news, the stockholders certainly won’t agree to support foreign correspondents.
The aim of bringing back the full-time foreign correspondent is not to eliminate the freelance system. That will never happen and never should. Rather, the aim is to rebuild public trust and interest in international news and to get people to take it more seriously via the hiring of more correspondents on a full-time basis. Unlike freelancers, full-timers can afford to make the investment of time needed to develop long-term contacts and become the eyes and ears for their media firm abroad, leading to better, more stable reporting and increased public trust.
It’s a very tall, very idealistic order, I readily admit. No doubt it seems hopelessly naïve, behind the times, or impractical. It presumes the existence of an intelligent, engaged public with the time and need to take seriously the idea a now ubiquitous media where everybody is a potential journalist can, and should, temper its impulse to report on the cheap. It challenges the tendency in too many newsrooms to pursue stories only after consulting social media managers about the number of “hits’’ they might generate. It suggests there is merit, and a future, in hiring people full-time, at great but necessary expense, to work on stories that are far away geographically as well as emotionally. More importantly for the bottom line, it assumes advertisers and, above all, shareholders and stakeholders will financially support such efforts because they understand the ultimate reward is something more valuable than immediate stock dividends: long-term public trust and respectability.
But one has to start somewhere. If full-time foreign correspondents return in greater numbers and report on serious issues then perhaps, just perhaps, the results of their labors will make it slightly easier for people to understand and, hopefully, address common international problems raised by such correspondents. Absent the financial pressures, lifestyle instabilities, and sometimes complicated loyalty questions that often plague freelancers, a full-time correspondent with full-time backing of the media organization they represent still cuts a very powerful figure in many parts of the world. Especially those parts that worry about the international furor and possible loss of foreign investment generated by that media firm if its foreign correspondent is harassed.
But most of all, with the prestige full-time correspondent has (which includes a measure of fear and respect), the foreign correspondent might also better serve as a distant check on the abuse of power abroad by politicians, foreign policy experts, and corporations at home. Especially by those not interested in sharing information about foreign lands with the voting public. This the kind of arrogance that, if not vigorously checked, will lead to the extinction of far more life forms than the mere foreign correspondent.