During the Media Re:Public conference in Los Angeles a little over a week ago, I was asked to come up with a 2-minute “provocation” about the future of news for a panel moderated by Jonathan Zittrain. Ethan summarized what all the panelists said.
I actually thought it was a pretty tame prediction, but I spent the rest of the day dodging journalists and editors who wanted to tell me I was wrong, naive, and even careless. Meanwhile younger colleagues were eager to tell me I was absolutely right. My friend Sameer Padania even rolled his eyes at me and said, “Have you even read the report I wrote? That’s exactly what I’ve been saying.” He’s not kidding. You can read it here. My favorite quote is attributed to Channel 4 reporter Sorious Samura, “When will foreign correspondents be foreign?”
I started with an anecdote, about a BBC World radio story broadcast to my California rental car radio. It was about a press tour organized by the Chinese authorities for foreign journalists to enter Tibet. The BBC was not invited, so the reporter interviewed a USA Today journalist about how the event had been interrupted by Tibetan monks protesting. Obviously what is happening between Tibet and China right now is very serious, but I still find this particular story silly. The journalist was reporting about a staged media event he hadn’t even been to, and his main source was another Western journalist.
I’m not targeting the BBC or this particular journalist in particular (he must have filed hundreds of different stories, and maybe even speaks Chinese). I just think the fact that a story like this is considered newsworthy is pretty depressing (especially since it must have been reported by a ton of other journalists already).
How many more years will we have to watch foreign correspondents parachute into a region and pretend they know what’s going on? How many more reports coming out of the Middle East from hotel rooftops will be delivered by people who do not speak Arabic, or know what “the Green zone” in Iraq was called before coalition forces arrived?
Not for long, is what I think. There are too many alternatives, and I’m not even referring to bloggers around the world. The type of thing we do at Global Voices is meant to be a service to professional journalists.
The founder of Alive in Baghdad, a fantastic video website that broadcasts weekly reports by Iraqi journalists, once told me in New York that he has a hell of a time getting news media organizations to recognize that his crew aren’t “citizen journalists” but actually, real, professional journalists who just happen to be Iraqi.
Sooner or later, qualified local perspectives will become what people prefer to hear, rather than what editors defer to when a situation becomes too dangerous for Western journalists to report from. It’s wrong not to have news from a faraway place, simply because there is no longer money to fly foreign correspondents there.
The internet has the effect of making international journalists even more accountable to global audiences that before. Just see Global Voices’ current China coverage. Yikes. Chinese bloggers are pouncing all over Western media inaccuracies. On openDemocracy, articles by authors from the region offer background on political history and media misunderstandings.
When the panel discussion in Los Angeles ended, the BBC’s wonderful Richard Sambrook graciously stood up and agreed with with some of what I said. In his own blog he wrote, “I agree the model of Foreign Correspondent is becoming rapidly outdated and needs re-inventing, not least to have authenticity with the subject which is lacking from many blow-dried parachute journalists.” Sambrook also noted that the BBC regularly uses over 400 “local stringers” around the world.
I think this just helps show that the end of what I consider old-fashioned foreign correspondence is coming closer. It’s not about where a journalist is born or not, it’s about listening and respecting people who are different, and trusting them to have the integrity to describe their own situation. I’m not saying it’s easier. But it could be better.
Here’s a brief report on American foreign media consumption. The part about Anna Nicole Smith is of course the most interesting… Robin from Snarkmarket sent it to me.