The End of the Foreign Bureau Era?

By RJI on February 27, 2007 0 Comments

In a February 12, 2007 article on the Global Journalist website, freelance journalist Reena Vadehra writes about the the loss of foreign bureaus and correspondents, and the impact of that loss on the journalism industry and news consumers.

Vadehra writes:

Whenever newspapers face economic downfall, foreign bureaus are the first to go for obvious reasons – they are expensive to maintain. During the early 1990s, when the country faced an economic recession, major cuts in both foreign and domestic reporting were made by news publications across the country. As the nation grew out of the recession, media budgets and staff increased. It seems like simple economics, however, there is a vital difference today. The nation is not facing a major economic recession, yet cutbacks abound.

Reasons vary for why these changes have been made – from rising newsprint prices and declining circulation to demands for higher profit. According to the 2006 State of the News Media report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the battle between the journalism idealists who argue for more quality reports at no expense (including the old, romantic notion of the foreign bureau and correspondent) and the accountants who argue for profitability is over. The accountants have won...

For foreign-based journalists, it is not just the closure of foreign bureaus that is a concern but the amount of coverage devoted to foreign news in the United States. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 27 percent of front page news in newspapers was devoted to foreign news in 1977. In 2004, that number dropped to 14 percent. Similarly, newsweeklies devoted 20 – 25 percent of their pages to international news from 1980 to 1990. Today, that percentage averages to about 15-17 percent...

Vadehra writes that this shrinking foreign "newshole" means that the remaining foreign correspondents and the freelancers employed to replace many of them have a harder time than ever tying to sell a story, and rather than working on contextual, in-depth, background articles they're forced to try to "break news."

Vadehra writes that news organizations often employ "parachute" journalists as an alternative to using foreign correspondents or freelancers. These parachutists are nationally-based reporters who are dropped into foreign countries as breaking news happens.

"The danger is that such journalists may lack the context and in-depth cultural knowledge needed to cover news in another country," writes Vadehra.

Freelance journalist Monica Campbell agrees. "Bad examples see journalists rush in without knowing of the language and clinging to English-speaking locals, analysts and the like. They lack the historical context and miss valuable references and comparisons that can only be made by studying or living in the country. So bring on the clichés and stereotypes. And too bad for the readers who may know little about the story, which is why they’re reading it, and get served a piece filled with slapdash conclusions."

"In the end", writes Vadehra, "the foreign correspondent will still remain, though now faced with the improbability of being sent abroad as paid staff, competition with unknowledgeable parachute journalists, and the burden of disinterested editors and news publications pre-occupied with the bottom line – profitability."

Click here for Vadehra's article in its entirety on the Global Journalist website.