A world without foreign correspondents


Andrew Stroehlein, Communications Director for the International Crisis Group, wrote a great piece on his Covering Crisis blog on the Reuters AlertNet site. He has very kindly agreed to let us post it on the Frontline blog. He raises a lot of points about under-reported stories, things we regularly cover here and discuss at length at the Frontline Club,

We’ve all watched the cutting of foreign news budgets for so long that we’ve become almost numb to it. Another bureau cut here, another three correspondent posts dropped there — drip, drip, drip — the dwindling capacity of overseas news gathering is constant background noise. Or ever-increasing silence, perhaps. But now we’ve come to two situations that show us what the world will be like when there are no foreign correspondents left.

The first is Somalia, where the utter inanity of foreign news coverage in the West, particularly in the US, knows no bounds. Amid deafening hero-worship and chest-thumping, the US media machine was so proud that a new president with the world’s largest military at his disposal can kill a couple lightly armed thugs that few seemed even able to grasp the most basic fact of the situation: piracy is symptom, not the disease, and lawlessness off the coast of Somalia will continue as long as anarchy is allowed to continue on land. If only a tiny fraction of the Western media ruckus of recent weeks could be dedicated to Somalia itself, then international political attention might start focusing on the roots of the problem.

But the danger on the ground makes Somalia extremely difficult to cover for foreign journalists, so we’re stuck with stories of tangential importance, written like Hollywood film scripts from editorial offices thousands of kilometres away. Some outlets, like the Independent in the UK, are sending reporters to the refugee camps in Kenya so at least the story of the enormous human cost of the Somali conflict is known. Most others are at best tagging on a sentence or two at the end of their stories, pointing out that Somalia is a failed state. However, discussion of the international community’s political options is pretty rare, leaving an endless loop of despair: Somalia’s been a failed state for so long, the world cannot imagine it any other way — even if it results in piracy and growing extremism that threaten us, not to mention great human suffering among the inhabitants

The other example of a crisis unfolding mostly not before our eyes is Sri Lanka, where over the past few months the situation in the north east has become incredibly desperate for some 150,000 civilians trapped in an ever-shrinking "safe zone" between their government that is shelling them and the cult-like LTTE rebels who shoot them if they try to escape. Today, as my colleague writes, "A mass slaughter of civilians will take place Tuesday at noon. And everyone knows it." Once again, foreign correspondents are unable to cover the story, this time because the government is not allowing them in to the region.

Some Western media are trying to cover this deteriorating situation, and in particular, the UK and other European countries have been running some shocking new video of the victims. BBC World Service radio has been keeping it generally high in the news order. But try to find this enormous catastrophe on American TV… Good luck.

Instead of any of these issues of political relevance and deep humanitarian concern, Americans get coverage of would-have-been obscure UN conferences, which are supposed to seem interesting because they are boycotted. Or, more likely, they get ratings-hungry hate-rants against creeping socialism and indignation at blatantly astroturfed "tea party" tax protests.

Too bad Al Jazeera English is not available on most living room screens in the US, and people there have to choke down the endless rotting fish heads of celebrity news or the same tiresome group of ignoramuses shouting at each other in a studio — both the cheapest forms of filling air time after a test card.

What ties all this together is ignorance of foreign affairs in news media due to a lack of correspondents on the ground. In the current cases of Somalia and Sri Lanka, mind you, the obstacles to reporters covering the stories are larger than normal budgetary issues of staffing cuts abroad. But the point is these situations show us what it’s like when Western news organisations — for whatever reason — do not have long-serving correspondents on the ground: when they have no eyes and ears following the situation directly, understanding the complexities and able to report more deeply than "hero saved" or simply ignore it all together.

A respected staffer in a field bureau is able to call the editor back home and say, "there’s something big going down here", "in all my years here, I’ve never seen anything like this before", and "this is news; we need to cover this". Without anyone making that pitch internally, the chance of missing out is always going to be greater.

And so with these two crises, we now understand what it will be like when the last foreign correspondent collects her last month’s salary and turns out the lights in the last overseas news bureau. We’ll get superficial coverage of issues that are actually hugely important, we’ll miss real threats to our own security, and we’ll miss mass murders in progress. link

Head over to Andrew’s original post to read the comments too