The “classic” foreign correspondent had become an identifiable occupation by the second half of the nineteenth century, supporting an increasing need of European and US newspapers to cover overseas military and civilian developments. Ever since, foreign correspondents have been considered an elite among news professionals. The numbers of “classic” foreign correspondents reached a peak worldwide between the 1950s and 1980s, but have been falling since because media organizations have increasingly been using local reporters to provide international news to their audiences. Competition, financial constraints, and technological advances have democratized the field of international news gathering and the profession of the foreign correspondent.
Foreign news has a demonstrable impact on foreign policies and public opinion of every country. In one formulation, the press acts as a “strategic center” that transmits facts about foreign policy between political systems (Cohen 1963). Mediated foreign news, particularly television and photo imagery, has shaped public opinion around the world, often bolstering governments’ resolve for action. The so-called “CNN effect” (Livingston 1997) stipulates that global real-time media have exerted a profound influence on diplomatic conduct and on foreign policy in the United States and perhaps elsewhere. The effect, also dubbed compassionate cosmopolitanism or electronic empathy (Hannerz 2004), has precipitated western-led interventions in various locations. On the flip side, foreign news is also among the most tightly controlled imports in countries without free media.
Reporters on international assignments were assumed to have the freedom of travel around the world as requested by their editors, seeking ways to understand what is happening there, and recounting that intelligence as a critical but also sympathetic story (Hess 2005). This foreign correspondent of the “classic” model has been labeled “a cosmopolitan among cosmopolitans” in a somewhat romanticized image because of their assumed ability to adapt to new environments and situations, reporting from any location of interest to home-country media (Cohen 1963).
Recent social, occupational, and cultural changes in the uses of existing technology, such as the emergence of bloggers, have made it possible for virtually anyone to send dispatches from abroad. Media have also liberalized their hiring practices, thus altering international news-gathering routines, although perhaps at the expense of professionalism.
The Evolution Of The Foreign Correspondent
An early glamorized image of the profession comes from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 patriotic caper, Foreign Correspondent, where reporters are called “soldiers of the press . . . who are writing history from beside the cannon’s mouth.” Most countries still use or presume professional classifications of foreign correspondents that include an expectation of special training and a permanent station in a foreign city – a status not unlike that of diplomats. A pre-Internet study of US foreign correspondents (in Erickson & Hamilton 2006) found that compared with their peers in the US, four times as many foreign correspondents had graduate degrees and twice as many had attended private colleges.
These assumptions are no longer universally valid. A marked trend worldwide has been the disappearance of the correspondent stationed in a foreign city for a pre-assigned “tour of duty” of three to five years. Instead, many news organizations send their representatives directly to the country of interest and retrieve them back home when the newsworthiness of the location wanes. Another trend is the increasing use of “local” foreign correspondents living permanently in one country and contributing to news organizations in another, who can be freelances or permanent hires, but rarely move to their publications’ home office (Hess 2005).
The bulk of foreign news reporting today falls to news agencies, such as the Associated Press, Reuters, Russia’s TASS, and China’s Xinhua. Large, usually western, news organizations maintain permanent correspondent bureaus abroad, such as the major broadcast networks and weekly news magazines (the Economist, Der Spiegel, and Newsweek), as well as major newspapers such as the British The Tiimes, the US New York Times, the French Le Monde, and the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, among others.
Sending a reporter abroad, let alone maintaining a foreign bureau, is expensive. Every correspondent requires financing for travel, equipment, accommodation, and local assistance, in addition to salary and benefits. The cost is prohibitive to smaller news outlets in the developed countries and to all but the largest media from economically weaker countries. Media that cannot afford in-house international reporting must instead rely on news agency information or syndicated stories provided by major newspapers, or, increasingly, use local reporters who contribute stories on demand.
Western editors were initially apprehensive of hiring foreign nationals out of fear that they may be culturally detached from home audiences. A recent survey of US foreign correspondents found that today only 31 percent of US foreign correspondents are American citizens (Wu & Hamilton 2004). Data is limited for other nations, although the trend in the western media seems to be toward a decrease in the Eurocentrism of reporters’ postings abroad. Some research findings indicate that institutional foreign correspondents share relatively similar news values across the globe, as expressed through the topics and events that receive most media attention (Wu & Hamilton 2004). Such shared news judgments may result from a worldwide Americanization of news production or the appearance of universal news values related to the emergence of a profession, or they may be a study artifact. No data exists on news values of local reporters who file stories for overseas media, but it could be expected that a more diverse field of contributors will increase the variety of viewpoints, but at the same time making quality control more difficult.
Foreign news organizations can rarely match domestic journalists in resources or access to political leaders and institutions, especially for coverage of breaking news. Local politicians and authorities are seldom interested in catering to the out-of-country constituencies served by these reporters, although under certain circumstances foreign news outlets may be preferred as a venue for political announcements when the creation of international resonance is an intended goal.
As a matter of tradition and convenience, foreign correspondents worldwide have relied heavily on local media for story tips, contacts, and news verification (Hess 1996). This has led to criticisms that few foreign press corps members venture outside of their offices to interact with natives. Lack of language proficiency is a related problem: while over three quarters of correspondents reporting from Europe and North and South America report high levels of host-country language proficiency, this proportion dips to half for Russia and China, and below a quarter for Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Eastern Europe (Hess 1996). This imbalance is changing with the increasing numbers of local journalists entering the field.
Foreign correspondents can have a direct effect on the fortunes in their host country. For instance, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in the United States, which is a bastion of “classic” foreign correspondence, distributes the Golden Globe movie award, which can shape film marketing outcomes. Similarly, many foreign press organizations award prizes or hold events devoted to journalistic, civic, cultural, and even political achievements in their host countries.
Overseas business and financial news has supplanted foreign political news reporting in recent years (Hachten & Scotton 2002). The proportion of business and financial reporters has been growing among the foreign press corps members stationed in developed and developing countries alike, leading to an increased demand for journalists specializing in business and financial stories.
Challenges In Foreign Correspondence
Numerous external pressures affect the way foreign correspondents cover the world, such as restricted access, suspicion from local authorities and citizens, along with cultural and language differences. Nondemocratic governments control the access for journalists as a rule, but even countries with otherwise free media have practices that often impede foreign reporters’ work through limitations on questions, bans on the attendance of background briefings with officials, and other formal and informal restrictions.
Foreign correspondents may also find themselves torn between their understanding of what are the most important stories in the country they are covering and what their editors back home think is newsworthy. Because of such perceptual differences, foreign correspondents may not always succeed in portraying important events, despite their preparation and best intentions. Superficial reporting, stereotyping, and “groupthink” on the part of foreign correspondents have been identified as major constraints of international news coverage, which makes it all the more important for news organizations to diversify their sources.
Editors have expected that the “classic” foreign correspondent living in a country for a set time would combine insiders’ knowledge and outsiders’ independence, allowing him or her to avoid partisan or vituperative edges that local media may exhibit. A foreign correspondent, however, usually provides a less nuanced interpretation of the host country or region than is available through local coverage, because of the correspondent’s domestic audience’s assumed lack of in-depth knowledge or interest.
A recent anthropological study followed parachute journalists covering various hot spots, finding that this practice does not seem to be as detrimental to reporting quality as journalism purists often portray it to be. Often involved in such parachute journalism are seasoned professionals whose beats and stories have taken them abroad to continue their work in a foreign setting (Hannerz 2004). The unexpected downside of this practice is the decreasing numbers of women sent to cover the world for their countries, most likely because of the inconveniences and risks associated with frequent travel to conflict areas. No data exist on the gender structure of local stringers serving international audiences, although anecdotic evidence suggests that at least in conflict areas these contributors are overwhelmingly male.
Today, many individuals without formal media affiliations have adopted technology to become de facto foreign correspondents by posting regular online dispatches, especially from conflict or disaster areas. Bloggers or other individuals who venture into foreign correspondence “informally” do not face the same editorial limitations as their institutional peers. The main challenges such freelances face are attracting sufficient audience and financing themselves.
Safety concerns have been another issue in modern foreign correspondence. Nonprofit organizations such as the French Reporters without Borders and the US Committee to Protect Journalists estimate that between 15 and 25 percent of journalists killed worldwide from 1992 to 2007 were either foreign correspondents or local reporters freelancing for foreign news outlets.
Special cases of foreign correspondence are war correspondents and the institution of embedded reporters, which has existed in practice since World War II but became prominent with the US-led war in Iraq of 2003. These journalists reporting from conflict zones face the gravest professional risks among their peers.
Although foreign correspondents of the “classic” model are still influential in filtering the news from a country to the rest of the world because they can decide the angle, tone, and extent of coverage, the sheer diversity of news sources at editors’ disposal today deprives foreign correspondents of the exclusivity they once enjoyed.
- Cohen, B. C. (1963). The press and foreign policy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Erickson, E., & Hamilton, J. M. (2006). Foreign reporting enhanced by parachute journalism. Newspaper Research Journal, 27(1), 33 – 47.
- Hachten, W. A., & Scotton, J. F. (2002). The world news prism: Global media in an era of terrorism, 6th edn. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
- Hannerz, U. (2004). Foreign news: Exploring the world of foreign correspondents. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Hess, S. (1996). International news and foreign correspondents. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- Hess, S. (2005). Through their eyes: Foreign correspondents in the United States. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- Livingston, S. (1997). Clarifying the CNN effect: An examination of media effects according to type of military intervention, research paper R-18. Cambridge, MA: Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. At www.ceu.hu/polsci/ Media_and_War-CEU/Week7-Livingston.pdf, accessed August 20, 2007.
- Wu, H. D., & Hamilton, J. M. (2004). US foreign correspondents. Gazette, 66(6), 517–532.