Shrinking World of World News

Interest in international news coverage continues to shrink.We live in a region where foreign trade is a vital part of our economy. The ports of the Columbia River system are busy exporting our agricultural, high-tech and manufactured products.  We also are dependent on sales of imports to keep our local businesses humming.

As communicators, many of us help promote these commodities, or chat with reporters about how local companies are faring in the global economy. But how much do we really understand about issues covered by international correspondents and the foreign media? And, how can we stay fully informed of international events?

Of course we know all roads don’t lead to Rome, but are we aware most news about Rome is reported from London or New York because most commercial television news networks closed their Rome news bureaus a long time ago? And that is a small piece of the story about the state of our foreign news coverage.

 It’s important to understand what is happening in the shrinking world of world news. Recently, the American Journalism Review reposted a story by Lucinda Fleeson from 2003 headlined “Bureau of Missing Bureaus.” Although written nine years ago, the overview tells a comprehensive story of what has happened as well as what still is happening to foreign news coverage on television.  

Some of the trends identified in the story are:

1. American’s interest in foreign news declined during the past 40 years. This downward spiral feeds on itself. 

”Many of the foreign bureaus closed in the 1980s and 1990s, decades in which the number of minutes devoted to foreign news spiraled steadily downward; short-lived spikes of interest followed the September 11 attacks and materialized during the 1991 and 2003 Persian Gulf Wars.” Lucinda Fleeson wrote.

2. Changes took place in how networks cover foreign news following the closure of many foreign bureaus. 

Fleeson added: “At several outposts, some networks maintain skeletal staffs – a bureau manager, perhaps a producer or a local crew on tap. But to a large extent, all of Europe and Asia are covered from London or New York. Latin American correspondents are almost nonexistent…”

On a breaking news story in Moscow, for example, a reporter might fly in from New York to do a 10-minute stand up for the morning network news. 

“Paul Slavin, ABC's senior vice president of worldwide newsgathering, calls this kind of television reporting "Just-In-Time News," after the revolutionary factory delivery system that has done away with stockpiles of expensive inventory,” Fleeson wrote.

3. The news has become focused on crisis.

“Up until September 11, 2001, reports from foreign bureaus accounted for less than half the time on network news reports than they did in 1989,” Fleeson reported, noting an uptick because of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Foreign news coverage became “largely crisis-oriented, without much in-depth reporting on brewing troubles.”

4. New partnerships have formed to fill the gap

“While networks have reduced their foreign staffs, they have forged partnerships with hundreds of news outlets around the globe. Some say this has expanded networks' reach into places they could never staff themselves. Others say it has turned many reports into cut-and-paste collages, often using unidentified sources,” Fleeson continued.

5. Some of the best reporting is done by cash-poor news organizations.

 “Some of the most penetrating and analytic foreign reporting on the air is found in documentaries that run on the financially strapped Public Broadcasting Service, often in the work of young videojournalists, who sometimes finance their own projects or rely on philanthropic grants,” Fleeson said.

6. A new breed of correspondent has emerged.

“A digicam revolution has created a breed of correspondents who travel light, often working alone, producing intimate, you-are-there reports for a fraction of the cost of sending a traditional network crew,” Fleeson reported. “The new technology offers a promise of faster, less produced, more informal stories that not only could increase the amount of foreign news on television, but inject new style.

ABC's London-based Mike Lee pioneered this mode. "My choice for hard news is to have a crew with me, because we need all the resources we can get. But it doesn't always make sense to have a big team," Lee told Fleeson.

Fleeson continues: “For instance, when he was in Kosovo, his crew went off with one military group, while he took the small camera in a different direction. Or he can hop on a plane from London to reach the latest disaster scene and shoot film before it becomes clear how big the story will be.”

7. Americans less informed as a result of the cuts.

“The dramatic decline in the quality and quantity of network news, particularly the loss of international coverage, "is perhaps the single most negative development in journalism in my lifetime," says John Schidlovsky, director of the Pew International Journalism Program and a former Baltimore Sun Beijing correspondent.

“But the cost has been that the American public knows so much less about what's going on in the world than 30 or 40 years ago, except for certain major stories or a major troop involvement,” Fleeson writes. “It becomes a vicious circle: When the public knows less about places in Africa or Asia or Central America, then it is going to demand less, and then the networks say the people aren't interested, and that becomes the pretext for dropping off."

"We as a nation were so surprised by what happened with 9/11. Had we known more about how others view us and our policies, I don't think we would have been so surprised,” Fleeson quotes a network executive.

 8. Reporters producing video for newspaper websites.

Fleeson writes about what in 2003 was the start of a big trend and something now commonplace in local news: 

“ video journalist Travis Fox is an example of what may become an increasingly common phenomenon — and he doesn't even work for TV. He spent two months in Kuwait and Iraq filing footage for the Post's website and producing video for MSNBC, the cable news channel affiliated with Washington Post online partner NBC. "Television is becoming as easy to produce as radio," he says.

Newspapers also have seen coverage of foreign news decline, according to a 2010 survey in Great Britain. An internationally recognized journalist, Turi Munthe, reports in a blog about readers in the United Kingdom:

 “The statistics make frightening reading. They compared foreign news coverage in a selection of the UK print media (Guardian, Telegraph, Mail and Mirror) between 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 and found the following:

  • 40 percent drop in foreign news coverage in absolute terms
  • Today, international news only makes up 11 percent of news coverage (compared to 20 percent in 1979)
  • 80 percent drop in foreign news stories within the first 10 pages. 

So now you know why Americans this week may be confused about, and lack essential background on, such stories as Egyptians again protesting in the streets, the U.S. stock market dipping because of European debt and why the latest news about China is scaring the bejesus out of top brass at the Pentagon [there’s always something that does].