John Maxwell Hamilton & Eric Jenner. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 5. September/October 2003.
What Else Is News?
Until quite recently, only a few news organizations had the capacity to gather and disseminate reports on international events and issues. Those interested in international affairs gleaned what they could from whatever these newspapers, newsmagazines, or network news programs offered. The audience-generalized and passive-routinely received small amounts of overseas coverage.
Laments about the inadequate amount of international news coverage span back to the end of World War II. “That the overseas press ranks should be thinned at the end of the war was only natural,” wrote one foreign correspondent at the time, “but that the dilution should be so complete as to eliminate eight out of every nine foreign correspondents is another matter.” The post-Cold War era has seen renewed hand-wringing as a result of greater declines in the number of traditional correspondents based overseas and in the print space and broadcast time devoted to international news (except during crises). Explanations for this trend-the high costs of maintaining correspondents overseas and the aggressive bottom-line goals of publicly held media companies-suggest that it is not likely to be reversed any time soon.
The persistent emphasis on traditional foreign correspondents is understandable considering that foreign policy elites are accustomed to relying on-and celebrating-these reporters. Unfortunately, these old habits distract students of foreign affairs from the emergence of new forms of foreign correspondence.
Although not yet well understood, technology-driven changes are reshaping international news flows by lowering the economic barriers of entry to publishing and broadcasting and encouraging the proliferation of nontraditional international news sources. The audience-now fragmented and active-is far better able to choose and even shape the news. Consequently, a broader definition of foreign correspondence and of foreign correspondents is required to assess what consumers of news now know about the world.
It’s a Wired World
To start, the Internet has made it possible for media companies to create special foreign news “wires.” An obvious example is Bloomberg News, which unlike traditional wire services sells news directly to the public. Bloomberg has about 255 print and 100 radio and television journalists inside the United States and far more-1,000 print and 200 broadcast-outside. Its audience pays substantially for this high-quality, specialized news delivered in real time over its Bloomberg terminals: $1,650 per month for a single terminal or $1,285 per month for each terminal if the client has more than one. New media technology does not preclude Bloomberg from using traditional media as well. It syndicates news to 450 newspapers and 720 radio stations, owns 10 television networks broadcasting in 7 languages around the world, and operates a 24-hour radio station.
Because half of Bloomberg’s subscribers are outside the United States, its staff cautions against describing its non-U.S.-based reporters as “foreign correspondents.” A trader in New York could have as much interest in soybeans in China as does a trader in Shanghai, and a global marketplace means the reverse is also true: farm news from Chicago interests Chinese as well as Americans. As a result, all of Bloomberg’s journalists are, in a sense, “foreign.”
Although Bloomberg will not provide detailed financial information about itself, general comments by staff members suggest that the extensive use of nontraditional “foreign correspondents” (i.e., local reporters, who do not need housing allowances, etc.), plus advantageous economies of scale resulting from the large number of correspondents employed, lowers the company’s overall per-correspondent costs.
Organizational in-house information gathering is another kind of international news service that, although not new, has been vastly enhanced by modern technology. In the early nineteenth century, the Rothschild banking family established an elaborate communications system using private couriers and carrier pigeons. Modern communications technology is far more advanced and, thanks to increasingly lower costs, greater speed, and easier use, is increasingly irresistible to companies operating in the highly competitive global marketplace. These companies must have timely information about political, economic, and social events around the world affecting their businesses. For that, they often create in-house information services.
Such news services are particularly prevalent in large organizations. The staffs of the World Bank and the Ford Motor Company, to name two such organizations, are linked globally and circulate detailed information in real time. But even smaller enterprises have staffs whose exclusive job is to provide updated information. One New Orleans-based copper-and-gold mining company with most of its operations in Indonesia, for example, employs two people-one in Louisiana and the other in Indonesia-to provide “nonpublic” daily news summaries for company staff.
Businesses do not highlight such activity and, in any event, do not regard their information gathering as “journalism.” As a result, scholars and journalists, who also view foreign news through a traditional lens, have overlooked the phenomenon of in-house reporting. Yet this phenomenon is worth noting-and studying-not only because of its prevalence but also because of its implications for global fair trade and commerce. The Rothschilds were renowned for their ability to use information to manipulate markets and gain political influence. Their network was so effective that Queen Victoria used it for banking services and booking hotel rooms. Advance news helped the Rothschilds profit from the duke of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. When telegraphic communication finally made such news available to the public equally quickly, one Rothschild confided to another that “people are too well informed and there is therefore little opportunity to do anything.”
Yet another kind of technology-driven foreign correspondence is do-it-yourself reporting and editing. Armed with lightweight camcorders and computers and able to post images and words on Web sites with the click of a button, anyone overseas can now become a foreign correspondent, whether carrying press credentials or not. Back home, citizens can gather news for themselves on the Web or, taking on the traditional role of the foreign editor, assemble up-to-date reports for others.
Web publisher and aids activist Wan Yanhai, for example, started his Web site, www.aizhi.org, in 1994 to “raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in China and support the rights of aids patients,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Notably,” reports the CPJ in a letter to the Chinese government, “his reporting for the project’s Web site has exposed an aids epidemic in Henan Province. … Wan Yanhai’s Web site has become one of the only independent sources of information on the disease in China.” Wan came to journalism in a roundabout way: he was previously an employee in the Chinese Ministry of Health.
Mark Rankov, one of the 750 people taken hostage by Chechen rebels last October in a Moscow theater, provided a firsthand account of the three-day standoff. Using a cell phone, Rankov contacted his friend Olga Brukovsky, who took down his words and published them on LiveJournal.com, a U.S.-based Web log (“blog”) service that allows anyone to create a journal on-line. The site remains an important source of information for people living in remote parts of Russia and other places where news agencies seldom send reporters.
Eurotrash, a blog set up by David Gallagher and Joyce-Ann Gatsoulis, two American journalists living in Europe, featured journal entries from nonjournalists who chronicled their experience coping with the European switch to a continental currency. As stated on their now-inactive blog, Gallagher and Gatsoulis’ aim was to go beyond the slick accounts in mass media to keep “track of the quirky human side of this gloriously epic yet tediously mundane transition, with correspondents in ten countries sharing their experiences.”
Less mundane is the diary of someone who calls himself “Salam Pax.” Beginning in September 2002, the self-described 29-year-old Iraqi architect posted reports on conditions in his beleaguered hometown, Baghdad. His Web site, “Where Is Raed?” (dear_raed.blogspot.com) became internationally popular. When the war began in March, individual members of the American military marching toward Baghdad filed their own separate blogs under such names as “L.T. Smash” and “Sgt. Stryker.”
The environmental organization Greenpeace uses its Web site, www.greenpeace.org, to carry news along with its views. On a recent day a visitor to that site could find a story on Greenpeace’s shutting down “every one of Esso’s petrol stations in Luxembourg,” an update on continuing health problems for victims of Union Carbide’s 1984 Bhopal plant explosion in India, and a report that an international commission is studying the implications for biodiversity of genetically engineered crops. True to its agenda, Greenpeace prefers to use the phrase “genetic contamination” when talking about genetically engineered crops, but its report of the commission’s work is based on fact and not likely to be found in a local newspaper.
As these examples suggest, consumers of Internet news are taking on functions once the province of editors. Consumers now increasingly select the international news that they want to read, view, or listen to. MSNBC’s site allows consumers to personalize the type of international news they receive by region. The New York Times’ “news tracker” allows people to create a subject- or keyword-based filter that alerts them when an article is published on specific topics or containing specific words, and America Online offered subscribers customized news about military units involved in the fighting in Iraq. Able to surf for their own news, people may tap into international newspapers on-line, if necessary using specialized software to translate foreign-language articles, or they may go to al Jazeera’s Web site (www.aljazeera.net) for video that is not carried by American media. Thus has emerged yet another new type of foreign correspondent: the “foreign” national correspondent.
This correspondent may be a reporter in India writing for an Indian daily newspaper, whose work is read over the Internet by a resident of Indianapolis. That same reader can also access specialized Web sites run by special interests. Leading up to the war in Iraq, people could get a breaking story directly from the Iraqis (www.uruklink.net/mofa, no longer available), the U.S. Department of Defense (www.defenselink.mil), or French diplomats (www.diplomatie.gouv.fr).
A recent Pew Research Center study, “One Year Later: September 11 and the Internet,” confirms that people are eagerly taking advantage of today’s technological possibilities. When the terrorist hijackings occurred in September 2001, Internet traffic soared. People expressed sympathy, provided assistance, and searched for hard news. Nearly half of Internet users looked on-line for news about the terrorist attacks, and about 25 percent “sought out information about Osama bin Laden or Afghanistan,” wrote two of the report’s authors, Steven Schneider and Kirsten Foot. While overall Internet use declined afterward, the number of people who reported using the Web to receive news increased considerably. Four weeks before the terrorist attacks, 22 percent of Internet users went on-line for news on a given day; afterward, 25-28 percent did. As our own studies suggest, those interested in international news tend to be heavy Internet users.
“Do-it-yourself-journalism,” wrote Alex Halavais, another author of the “One Year Later” study, “has been a staple of Internet activity for years and the terrorist attacks gave new prominence to the phenomenon.” Blogs have become the most recognized electronic evolution in news: from the highly personalized and niche journals mentioned above to mass audience chronicles hosted on the likes of MSNBC.com and the Web site of The Christian Science Monitor. Fark.com, whose motto is “It’s not news, it’s Fark.com,” is dedicated to news of the amusing or outlandish. But recognizing the urgency of meeting public needs in the immediate aftermath of September 11, Fark.com got serious and connected users to breaking news provided by a long list of news organizations as well as by individuals with firsthand experience and images of the events. Acting like journalists, Internet users were able to “investigate the facts of a story without leaving the living room,” according to Halavais. He also concluded that journalists must “place current events in the context of recent history, indicate how the day’s news might illustrate the culture or ideals of a society, and help news consumers to plan a course of action. The Web fulfilled these functions in important ways post-9/11.”
Internet international news provided by untrained and unsupervised journalists, however, can flood public discussion with error, rumor, and disinformation that is often difficult to sort out from the authentic and factual. Initially, there was no way of knowing if Salam Pax was who he said he was-or even if he (or she) was in Baghdad. Yet, Salam Pax, whose authenticity has since been validated by an American newsperson, also shows the virtues of amateur reporting. His Web accounts offered valuable perspective at considerable personal risk. This still-anonymous blogger is justifiably celebrated on Salam Pax T-shirts and coffee mugs. Journalists like Salam Pax will be especially important as long as traditional foreign correspondents remain sparse. Similarly, the ability of the public to get international news for itself may compensate for dwindling international reporting by traditional media.
The typical foreign affairs reporter, Bernard Cohen observed in his mid-1960s classic The Press and Foreign Policy, “is a cosmopolitan among cosmopolitans, a man in gray flannel who ranks very high in the hierarchy of reporters.” Contemporary studies persistently reaffirm this image of the romantic, urbane foreign correspondent rubbing shoulders with the elite in distant capitals. “Twice as many foreign correspondents as Main Street journalists have attended private colleges and four times as many have graduate degrees,” according to International News and Foreign Correspondents, a 1996 report written by Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. The glamour and status of being a foreign correspondent is so palpable that Hess sought to find out how many of them had celebrity parents.
But this elite image is as outdated as the portable manual typewriters correspondents once lugged with them. Traditional foreign correspondents no longer exercise hegemony over foreign news. Taken as a whole, the new classes of foreign correspondents are neither so elite nor so easily defined in their personal characteristics, outlook, or work habits.
The foregoing discussion scarcely begins to identify the potential ramifications of this shift. Here are some others that need study: Foreign nationals are working not only for brand-new premium retail services like Bloomberg’s but also, as studies show, more frequently for traditional news media, which are seeking budget savings. These “foreign” foreign correspondents offer the potential for greater international perspective in their reporting, but will they deliver, or will foreign nationals instead end up seeing the world through the lens of the home countries of the media companies for which they are reporting, with the only advantage being that they work for less money? What are the implications of in-house foreign correspondents, who ensure their organizations have timely, tailored international intelligence? Will these in-house systems contribute to a world of information haves and have-nots? This last possibility leads to questions about foreign policy in the Internet age. Will elites become even more powerful because of their access to advanced media technologies? Or will the increasing variety of news formats, which offer more entry points for the public, increase nonelite interest and participation in foreign affairs?
We may be a long way from knowing if foreign policymaking will become less elite, something that foreign policy experts such as Cohen feared. We do know, though, that British political theorist Harold Laski was correct when he observed more than six decades ago that the problem of international news “lies at the heart of the major problems of the modern state.” Any attempt to come to grips with these problems must recognize that contemporary international news flows are more complex than at any other time in history. We cannot assess the health of foreign correspondence the way we have done for so long, merely by counting the number of reporters sent abroad by major news media, or by simply analyzing stories covered by The New York Times, Newsweek, and ABC News. To think otherwise is to display what scholars have called a “fortress journalism syndrome,” referring to an inclination to think in terms of familiar news systems rather than in terms of the people who seek out news wherever they can find it.
The elite image of the traditional foreign correspondent retains its power not only because we are trained to see it, but also because it still exists. That image, however, is not the only thing to see anymore. If we want to ascertain what today’s news consumers know about the world, we need to look carefully in many different places.