WNR on the Media: Are foreign correspondents redundant?

War correspondents; WWII.

War News Radio’s Kyle Crawford considers the role of foreign correspondents.


This week, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford released a report by Richard Sambrook, the former Director of Global News for the BBC, which asks ‘Are Foreign correspondents redundant?’ The study concludes that digital technology and economic pressures are rapidly changing the way international news is being reported and consumed. Kyle Crawford has more.

KYLE CRAWFORD: In the 1980’s the major American TV networks maintained about 15 foreign news bureaus. Now there are  fewer than 6. Networks have shut down their foreign desks in Moscow, Paris, Tokyo and Cairo to name a few. In fact, today there are no network bureaus in India, South America or Africa, except for a one-man bureau in Kenya.

The study is based on Sambrook’s experience with the BBC and interviews with a variety of news makers and news organizations. He starts by outlining the role that foreign correspondents have played for the last hundred years and he writes “we are now entering a new era where they may no longer be central to how we learn about the world.”

The study notes a paradox, that even as traditional foreign correspondents become less prevalent, the opportunity to find out about the world is increasing.

Andy Mendelson, chair of the department of journalism at Temple University agrees that there has been a drop in the number of foreign correspondents but he also notes a rising number of local journalists as Sambrook’s study does.

ANDY MENDELSON: For the last 20 years there has been a huge decline in the numbers of them…So the fact that there might be increasing numbers of local people reporting, doing some of this may be a good thing because the amount of foreign news has been declining steadily over the last 20-30 years.

KYLE CRAWFORD: Mendelson explains that local journalists can bring important context both cultural and historical to their reporting. But that there are also issues we have to be aware of.

ANDY MENDELSON: I think they an be just as good of reporters as an American dropping in or leaving there…There are obligations that may make them feel different reporting concerns than an American reporter which is good and bad…I mean they may report things in a different way than an American reporter and that may be a good thing. But they also may limit the story if they are protecting what they think of as there culture or something like that. So that is always an issue when you have an insider versus an outsider reporting on a place. But internationally those additional voices used correctly used properly could be a very good thing for people for audiences.

KYLE CRAWFORD: Sambrook spoke to many journalists who note how easy it is to self-publish and share stories online with the advent of new communication technologies. However, with this increased competition and freely available news, networks are having to cut-costs and cut their foreign correspondents.

The study notes that social media is now “leading, supplementing and complementing what professional news organizations offer, providing fresh source material” and competing with traditional news for the public attention. In January 2010, some of the first reports on the earthquake in Haiti came through twitter. Sambrook notes that the public looked to twitter over traditional media to discuss, and rally around the victims of the disaster.

Mendelson also says that twitter is a valuable tool but that it doesn’t help people grasp the context or the history of an event.

ANDY MENDELSON: I mean information, is not knowledge and I don’t ever say it is information. It is data and data needs to be sorted and processed to make it useful to people, and a stream of just tweets is not necessarily helping people understand a larger context

KYLE CRAWFORD: He, agrees with Sambrook that the way the news is being reported is changing. And he wants the public to realize that moving away from the model of traditional foreign correspondents is not a bad thing.

ANDY: MENDELSON: I just don’t think we can keep romanticizing this idea that we need to have American foreign correspondents that we are the only experts on a place in other countries. There are experts and perspectives that we can learn a lot from without being American citizens.

KYLE CRAWFORD: To answer the question ‘Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant’ — Sambrook says no. It’s true the way international news is reported is changing but the central mission of correspondents is not. Foreign correspondents will continue to be crucial in bearing witness to international events.

For War News Radio, I’m Kyle Crawford.