International news reporting evolved with the advent of the telegraph in the mid-1800s. The explosion of foreign news that followed largely supported the colonial empires; it also focused on international conflicts involving them (while all but ignoring others).
The concept of international reporting is itself contentious, beginning with the definition of “news.” Galtung and Ruge conducted a study in 1965, which remains influential, for it succinctly described what international news is, and is not, for leading news organizations. They described numerous news priorities, but most crucially observed that the more the event concerns elite nations, the more the event concerns elite people, the more the event can be seen in personal terms, as due to the action of specific individuals, the more probable it is that it will become a news item. And the more negative an event is in its consequences, the more probable that it will become a news item. These findings have been routinely replicated in research (Galtung & Ruge 1970).
Media Organizations In International News Reporting
Only a relatively small number of large media organizations routinely engage in international reporting. These include the global news services such as the BBC, CNN International, and news agencies (Reuters, Associated Press, Agence FrancePresse), and large newspapers and broadcasters from the world’s wealthiest countries, such as the New York Times, Le Monde, NHK, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Until the 1990s, the US broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC were vital in drawing American and global attention to international issues, but their foreign operations were scaled back in the 1990s. An exception among news magazines is the multilanguage monthly Le Monde Diplomatique.
Where the largest news organizations once provided occasional (even if mostly negative) coverage from developing countries and infrequently covered nations, since the 1990s even this has declined as those organizations concentrated their diminishing allocation of resources on hard-to-cover mega-stories like conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, and the Middle East. News agencies, especially, pulled staff from the rest of the world to establish huge semi-permanent reporting teams for these stories. Thus, they became the leading international story day after day, whether anything significant was happening or not, because nobody was left to provide news from elsewhere, and the big investment had to be justified.
Surveys indicated that foreign editors saw little need to increase international coverage, even as other research pointed to public demand for it (Utley 1997; Parks 2002; Pew Research Center 2002; Philo 2004). Foreign coverage is most often provided, if at all, through news agency subscriptions or the purchase of syndicated stories from larger organizations. Only the rare international journey is undertaken, usually to find a “local angle” on a massive story receiving saturation coverage by the global press, like the Iraq war of 2003. Both editors and journalists from wealthy nations still typically regard with suspicion reporting from local journalists in developing countries, even as they grow increasingly dependent upon it when their own budgets are cut.
Forms And Styles
A classic critique of international reporting bore the label “parachute journalism,” signifying the practice of jetting correspondents into breaking stories around the world, where they would spend just hours or days before moving on to the next. They had no access to local languages, no opportunity to develop expertise on the stories they were reporting, and would usually rely on the most accessible sources for information and interviews – often professional peers or their own national embassy staff. Some news organizations have offered a partial counter to such critiques by having specialists cover vast regions, like all of Latin America or Africa. While this might somewhat offset the previous invisibility of those regions, the “parachute” approach necessarily remains.
However, as international coverage increasingly became conflict reporting, especially conflicts involving the US, parachute journalism evolved into “rooftop” journalism, where inaccessible military action a great distance away was described to international television audiences by correspondents encamped on the roofs of luxury hotels, where their cameras and satellite dishes could be safely stationed. It provided an illusion of live coverage, but “on-scene” reporters knew only what the military and local journalists would tell them (Van Ginneken 1998; Allan & Zelizer 2004; Paterson & Sreberny 2004).
In his research on the culture of news production in the US, Gans observed that American international correspondents tended to judge “other countries by the extent to which they live up to or imitate American practices and values” (Gans 1979, 42). Dahlgren and Chakrapani (1982) described western ways of seeing the “other,” finding reports about developing countries tended to display prominently the “definitive motifs” of social disorder, flawed development, and primitivism. These authors argued that western news readers contentedly see themselves as the opposite of these things, providing, in the commercial marketplace, an incentive for such stereotypes to persist (Said 1978; Dahlgren & Chakrapani 1982).
Foreign correspondents were once regarded as the nobility of journalism – what journalists and journalism students aspired to be. The best international reporters still exhibit broad knowledge of the politics and cultures of other nations (often specializing in particular nations or regions), are linguistically adept, empathize with people different from themselves, and often possess a taste for adventure, if not outright danger. But such professionals are increasingly rare, given contemporary media corporations’ financial priorities. There remains no shortage of freelance journalists willing to risk all to bring interesting stories from abroad. BBC journalist David Loyn described the exploits of some prominent and influential freelance journalists of the 1990s in his book Frontline. In the process he provided a trenchant critique of current mainstream, television-driven, international reporting.
Repression Of Media: Violence Against Journalists
Journalists acknowledge the critiques, but point out that their work often displeases people, and at times of conflict may be especially dangerous. Numerous journalists have been expelled from countries by having their visas or work permits revoked, but given the high numbers of journalists killed in recent years, this is now regarded as a mild penalty – if not a badge of honor. A number of nongovernmental organizations – many sponsored by major media outlets – work to document repression of both foreign and local reporters by governments and others, to free imprisoned journalists, to independently investigate casualties among journalists, and to lobby for greater press freedom and protection (see for example, www.newssafety.com, www.rsf.org, www.ifj.org, cpj.org, and article19.org).
As the number of journalists killed continues to escalate in the 2000s, safety has become an increasingly pressing concern, and a small industry of safety training courses for journalists has developed. Government involvement in the murder of journalists is often suspected, but can rarely be proven. When Russian human rights journalist Anna Politkovskaia was murdered in 2006 after covering very extensive human rights violations in Chechnya, many feared the return of Soviet-style repression. In other parts of the world attacks on journalists also grew worse, as when Zimbabwean television cameraman Edward Chikombo was murdered after photographing the opposition leader’s injuries following a beating by police. Foreign journalists had been banned from Zimbabwe, but days after this local photographer’s images reached the international media, he was dead.
Over 1999 –2007, an even more disturbing trend in news media repression began as the US government – long a leading advocate of press freedom – began accumulating in other countries an extensive record of arrests and killings of media professionals. Over those years, as many as 40 media professionals were killed by the US military in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and dozens were detained without charge in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reuters reported some of its staff had been tortured by US forces, and at the time of this writing a cameraman for Al-Jazeera television had been held in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for six years. As of 2007, no US troops had been held to account (Paterson 2005; International News Safety Institute 2007).
Crucial technological change in international reporting has come about since the mid- 1990s, driven mostly by the ability to compress, and therefore transmit more cheaply, streams of digital information, including high quality television pictures. In the 1980s, a few minutes of transmission of television pictures from the scene of a remote news event might have cost thousands of dollars and required massive satellite dishes, but by the mid-2000s, the same transmission cost well below 100 dollars and required equipment no larger than a briefcase.
Smaller and better cameras, satellite telephones capable of transmitting video, and laptop computers enabling the writing of stories and editing of pictures in the field have revolutionized the logistics of news gathering, and allowed journalists to provide video, sound, and text (allowing distribution by television, radio, newspaper, Internet, and, increasingly, mobile phone) from nearly anywhere on earth. But it still costs a great deal to get media personnel to most parts of the globe (those any distance from an airport), and to keep them there for any length of time – and that still significantly constrains what is defined as international news.
As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, international news reporting seems more important than ever in an increasingly interconnected but polarized world. With the Korean news organization OhmyNews in the lead, nonprofessional journalists are proving that global reporting does not require global news organizations; and those global organizations are struggling to cover the largest stories as their personnel are targeted. Some journalists have been influential in calling for fresh approaches to reporting, such as Bell’s journalism of attachment or Lynch’s peace journalism, which challenge journalists to focus on, respectively, the human toll of conflict and solutions to conflict (Bell 1998; Lynch 2004). For now, the stories of the world most people see and read are still determined by just a few international news services and from a very limited perspective.
- Allan, S., & Zelizer, B. (2004). Reporting war: Journalism in wartime. London: Routledge.
- Bell, M. (1998). The journalism of attachment. In M. Kieran (ed.), Media ethics. London: Routledge, pp. 15 –22.
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- Dahlgren, P., & Chakrapani, S. (1982). The third world on TV news: Western ways of seeing the “other.” In W. Adams (ed.), Television coverage of international affairs. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 45 – 65.
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- Galtung, J., & Ruge, M. H. (1970). The structure of foreign news. In J. Tunstall (ed.), Media sociology: A reader. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, pp. 259 –298.
- Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news. New York: Pantheon.
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- International News Safety Institute (2007). Killing the messenger: Report of the global inquiry by the International News Safety Institute into the protection of journalists. At www.newssafety.com/ stories/insi/KillingtheMessenger.pdf, accessed September 16, 2007.
- Loyn, D. (2006). Frontline: The true story of the British mavericks who changed the face of war reporting. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Lynch, J. (2004). Reporting the world: The ethical challenge to international news. In C. Paterson & A. Sreberny (eds.), International news in the twenty-first century. Eastleigh: University of Luton/ John Libbey, pp. 261–274.
- Parks, M. (2002). Foreign news: What’s next? Columbia Journalism Review, January/February, 52 – 57.
- Paterson, C. (2005). When global media don’t “play ball”: The exportation of coercion. International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics, 1(1), 53 –58.
- Paterson, C., & Sreberny, A. (eds.) (2004). International news in the twenty-first century. Eastleigh: University of Luton/John Libbey.
- Pew Research Center (2002). Public’s news habits little changed by September 11: Americans lack background to follow international news. At http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3? ReportID=156, accessed September 16, 2007.
- Philo, G. (2004). The mass production of ignorance: News content and audience. In C. Paterson & A. Sreberny (eds.), International news in the twenty-first century. Eastleigh: University of Luton/ John Libbey, pp. 199 –224.
- Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.
- Utley, G. (1997). The shrinking of foreign news: From broadcast to narrowcast. Foreign Affairs, 76(2), 2 –10.
- Van Ginneken, J. (1998). Understanding global news. London: Sage.
- Wu, H. D. (2003). Homogeneity around the world? Comparing the systemic determinants of international news flow between developed and developing countries. Gazette, 65(1), 9 –24.