Will The Internet Kill The Foreign Correspondent?

from the world-wide-web dept

The New York Times takes a look at the changing role of foreign correspondents in the Internet age. A generation ago, journalists who covered foreign countries could send reports back home without worrying about how their coverage would be perceived by the natives. This may have allowed more candid reporting, but it also meant coverage was less accurate because reporters never got feedback from the people they were covering. Now all that has changed. On the Internet, Indian readers can read the New York Times as easily as the Times of India. When reporters make mistakes, they get instant feedback from the subjects of their stories.

One question the story doesn't specifically discuss is whether there's a need for foreign correspondents, at all, in the Internet age. In the 20th century, newspapers needed foreign correspondents because the process of gathering and transmitting news across oceans was expensive and cumbersome. Having a foreign bureau gave a newspaper a competitive advantage because it allowed it to get fresher and more complete international news than its competitors. Now, of course, transmitting information around the world is incredibly cheap and easy. My local newspaper is no longer the only—or even the best—source of information about world events. Those who understand the language can get their news directly from foreign media outlets. And for the rest of us there are a ton of people who translate, filter, and interpret the news coming out of foreign countries for domestic consumption. Given these realities, it's not obvious how much value is added by having American newspapers send reporters to the far-flung corners of the globe.

Of course, there are still tremendous advantages to having people who can explain foreign events and put them in context for American readers. I can read India's newspapers, but I'm not going to pick on all the nuances of the coverage. But there are lots of ways to provide this kind of context and analysis. For example, there are undoubtedly smart Indian journalists who went to college in the United States and then returned to India. Such journalists are going to possess a much deeper understanding of Indian culture than an American journalist could. Conversely, there may be American expats living in India (perhaps with day jobs other than journalism), who could provide an American perspective on Indian news. Most importantly, there are lots of people here in the United States, who can read Indian news sources and then write about developments there, from an American perspective. These include Indian immigrants and Americans who have spent time in India, in the past.

One of the things people frequently cite as evidence of the dire state of the news industry is the fact that newspapers are closing their foreign bureaus and laying off their foreign correspondents. Maybe this is a sign that journalism, as a profession, is in trouble. But another interpretation is that we've just found more efficient ways to get news about foreign events. American readers will continue to demand coverage of overseas events. But 21st century news organizations are likely to discover that shipping American journalists overseas is not the most efficient way to meet that demand.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Weird Harold, Mar 18th, 2009 @ 8:48pm

    This is a great example where "more effecient ways" doesn't mean we get a better product. CNN is a good example: More and more often, the news is reported by local reporters from the region, rather than by CNN staffers. They also will report the news from anywhere in Europe or much of the middle east from London, using local stringers to get the actual news.

    It's cheaper, that is for sure. You are paying local rates for work, rather than the going US or european rates for staff. In the end, the story is at the mercy of those stringers, who may or may not do the full job, may not deal with all sources, etc.

    The outsourcing of news to anyone who happens to be around has been happening for a while. It isn't unusual for CNN or Fox to run live coverage including Americans who happen to be in the area on the phone, often with nothing more to add than "I heard a boom far away", but that fills 20 minutes of airtime. it is no longer news, just opinion. I come away from that type of coverage much more poorly informed than when I started.

    In the end, most news is entertainment used to fill the time between the commercials. So we shouldn't expect much more.

     

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    Jesse, Mar 18th, 2009 @ 9:02pm

    I'd argue that it's more than the process just being efficient, but basically repeat what you said that it is better to get a more complete perspective of what's going on from a reporter with a thorough understanding of both perspectives. Like you said, having expats or American educated Indians helps to provide insight for both perspectives. Those who have a solid handle on both American and Indian culture would probably be able to provide the highest quality of reporting.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 18th, 2009 @ 9:02pm

    Re:

    We may not be getting any more than entertainment right now, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't expect more, and that there isn't a market in providing more.

    The sheer inanity of most televised news these days is why I avoid it most of the time. If I want to be entertained, there's a whole internet full of stuff just waiting to do so, not to mention a stack of books I've been meaning to read.

    But if I want news, I want to know as much (within relevance) as possible about all parties involved. Now, because I'm not entirely above egotism, I may want the view ultimately slanted towards my own. But I'd still like to see the views of all sides presented. And I think there's a market opportunity in supplying real news that looks at multiple sides of issues.

    Perhaps this is what the much-vaunted but rarely seen "investigative journalism" is. If it is, we need more of it and less of the heads talking just to make noise.

     

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    Allen (profile), Mar 18th, 2009 @ 9:02pm

    The agencies got there first.

    Our office gets a variety of papers from a number of different countries, Australia, Hong Kong, China, the US.

    Anything of international interest will be repeated in each, rarely with much in the way of alteration, written by someone called Reuters or that other guy AFP. Only in the country of origin might you see that there was a journalist behind it.

    I don't think that the internet killed the foreign correspondent. The agencies got there first. You dont need a reporter on the ground when you can cut and paste from a feed.

    We might see the internet kill off the agencies though...

     

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  5.  
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    yogi, Mar 19th, 2009 @ 12:41am

    I

     

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  6.  
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    yogi, Mar 19th, 2009 @ 12:45am

    One thing I'll miss:

    The excellent coverage CNN foreign correspondent provided from Iraq when Sadaam Hussein was in power.

    You just can't beat that kind of journalism:

    "CNN admits that knowledge of murder, torture, and planned assassinations were suppressed in order to maintain CNN's Baghdad bureau."

    link: http://www.honestreporting.com/articles/critiques/CNNs_Iraqi_Cover-Up.asp

    So, yeah, we have sooo much to lose when Western journalists stop "reporting" from foreign countries, and especially from dictatorships.

     

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    Claes, Mar 19th, 2009 @ 2:10am

    "When reporters make mistakes, they get instant feedback from the subjects of their stories."

    Not if the subjects cannot understand the language which the reports are written in...
    Even if there are no language barriers there can still be a time difference between the interviews and the publishing date. A foreign correspondent can use this to gather information and move to another place before he/she faces any personal risks due to the news being published. A local reporter may need to weigh in the risks more carefully.

     

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    Shawn, Mar 19th, 2009 @ 7:01am

    Foriegn Correspondants are already dead

    They have been slowly dying since the "monitization" of broadcast news (late 70s - early 80s). The reason is farily simple, Americans dont give a shit what happens in the rest of the world, so there is very little money in supporting foriegn bureaus. The death of foreign correspondants in the Unites States has been going on longer then the internet and is the result of business changes, not technology ones. Lucky for us, the British have been substantially more responsible about the need to get "world wide" information to its citizens, so we can continue to piggie-back on them for a while.

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh, Mar 19th, 2009 @ 8:54pm

    Foreign correspondents

    Right on, Mike!
    I will add that it is keeping American journalism more honest. There was a time (not all that long ago, really) when I could get a foreign newspaper (usually from Mexico, since that was easier) and read an identical story I had just read in an American paper, and find myself reading TWO different accounts!
    We have to remember, most newspapers are owned (and the bias dictated by) individuals, not always individuals one would necessarily agree with (Ted Turner, anyone?).
    Now, though, the chance of getting caught in a flat-out lie is much greater (though, reading foreign newspapers, I can tell you people still lie! Where! Here? There? Who knows.).

     

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