Does the media give enough space to international events? Tip O’Neil, a former speaker of the US House of Representatives is credited with saying: All politics is local. And for most people, all news is local. People care about what happens in their back yard much more than halfway around the world.
But in the 21st Century, there is no doubt that events halfway around the world have impact. Unrest in the Niger Delta, impact global oil prices. As we just noted, cartoons published in Denmark set off protests across the Middle East and in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Newsgathering is expensive. International newsgathering more so. Does your media give you enough international news? And for us in the media, how do we pay for it?
When I was in university, one of my professors, a former CBS correspondent in London blamed deregulation in the US on the lack of foreign news on American TV. Deregulation set off a buying binge for local TV stations in the US. The networks bottom lines were pressed as they were bought by highly leveraged corporate raiders. News, which had been seen as a loss-leading public service, suddenly had to pay its own way. Foreign news didn’t pay.
Foreign bureaux were shut. The US networks became more reliant on agency pictures from Reuters and APTN (the television branch of Associated Press). I’ll try to google up some stats, but I would hazard a guess that foreign coverage dropped on US TV during the 1990s. One of the things on my reading list is Bad News by Tom Fenton talking about how little Americans understand about their own country’s foreign policy because of a complete lack of coverage. (I have a birthday coming up, well actually tomorrow. Maybe I’ll add it to my Amazon Wish List.)
This is a public broadcasting conference. Profit motive isn’t such an issue, but even we at the BBC are not immune to our own financial pressures. We’re in the middle of three years of cuts.
Carmen Buergo of RNE, Spanish radio, talked about the resources and airtime dedicated to international coverage.
France’s identity crisis
There was a really fascinating overview of French politics and French media from Pascal Delannoy of SRF.
He said that there was a crisis in France of the place of French people in the world.
We have an important election in a year, not between the left and the right but about the place of France in Europe and the place of France in the world. Beyond any division of social choices, we see people looking at France’s place in the world.
At the referendum on the EU constituion, there arose the myth of the Polish plumber. This was an important idea that Polish plumbers would come to work in France, take jobs and change the social model of the country.
We are about 10 years too late in dealing with European problems. About 10% of French laws come from Europe, but people were not aware of this. About 80 to 90% of journalists thought the constituion would pass, but the French people saw the changes in the world as a provocation.
It is not a question of the number of stringers or correspondents. We have seen many fears expressed concerning the Right. It is the ignorance of the outer world when France starts to open itself to the outer world.
With the crisis of the suburbs in France. We referred to the cartoons. I am French, yes, but where is my religious conscience? The case of the cartoons is not well explained.
How do we explain that the Polish plumber should not be a threat? How do we explain the place of religion? How do we explain Europe?
France is an important country, yes, and big, but it is just one in a world full of others, he said. There is a concern about how to report the world to the French world. There is a complex vis a vis Africa. We do not do enough good reporting about Africa. We have no correspondent in Africa. It is unbelievable.
SRF is separate from RFI, Radio France International. RFI has a very large presence in Africa. But not everyone can listen to it. In Paris, you can only listen to it via the internet.
France has an identity crisis. This can be worrying. It means that media has a special responsibility concerning the education and training of the French citizens so that they understand what is the place of France in the world. There is a lot to be done, Mr Delannnoy said.
As an American, I wonder what our media does to help us understand our place in the world? (I may work for the BBC, but I still think a lot about the media in the US and the United States.
Viewers vote with their remotes
Piotr Gorecki is a reporter for Telewizja Polska. How would he cover the ‘Myth of the Polish Plumber’? he was asked by the moderator.
On TV, with international news, our viewers reach for the remote and change the channel. It has been tested for TV viewers.
Should we cover international news? There is no avoiding that. I am perhaps in the more convenient position of not being a decision maker, not making financial decisions, he added.
If the decision of airing international news, maybe I suffer from a conflict of interest. I would like international news to be on the air because it would keep me working.
On Polish TV, international news is stuff that editors shape freely. They use international news, if there are too many serious domestic stories, they will pepper it with international news. Maybe they will add a natural disaster somewhere. “I’m not happy with that, but in the present format, it is the editors, not the reporters that decide,” he said.
There are always things that we should cover. Tsunami. 9/11. Events going on in Iran, such news will always be aired. The address of President Putin or another EU summit. There is no other criteria to choose other stories, he said. Viewers might be put off. Viewers may not understand why they are being shown something. He criticised public TV editors for their choices in international coverage.
I believe that you can’t really cover international issues if we don’t have a person on the spot, if we don’t have a person who tells us what they see around them. That is the fundamental job of journalists.
The Pacific as the Med of the 21st Century
Krysztof Mroziewicz spent 15 years in Asia and 2 years in South America. He is s columnist for Polityka, but he spent many years as an ambassador for Poland.
He believes that the Pacific Ocean will be the Mediterranean Sea of the 21st Century.
It is much more important for us to understand what will happen to a reunification of China rather than the unification of Europe. Moscow is a main player but not a superpower. A superpower has not only nuclear weapons but also economic weapons, he said.
Only two countries have both nuclear and economic weapons in the world: the US and China. Yes, Europe has two nuclear arsenals, but it has no unified foreign policy. All of those global decisions will be taken by these two powers in a new bi-polar world.
President Bush went to Iraq for Saddam Hussein for nuclear weapons or biological weapons. Why not against Kim Jong Il?, Mr Mroziewicz asked. The US would have needed the permission of China, and that is not going to happen.
Abandoning the news
Hosam Sokkari of the BBC talked about how young people are turning away from news. I’m going to paraphrase his question but how do you get them to want to know about what they don’t know about?
Ahhh…that’s a good question. How do we in the media get people engaged? And that is about whether it is in their own backyards or half a world away.
I had a history teacher who had this idea of cultural diffusion. He talked about how trade and conquest spread ideas across cultures. If I remember correctly, his example was the image of a bull in Cretian mythology, and he showed through centuries of the rise and fall of empires and trading powers how this image was brought to India. I’m boiling things down. But I remember that by giving history this unifying idea that it helped tie together a lot of disparate facts.
Maybe if we in the media helped people understand context, these apparently unrelated events and facts would have coherence, which would give them importance. Would that help our readers, viewers, listeners re-engage? Or do they feel that by trying to give context, we in the media spin the story instead of telling it?
In some ways though with international news, context is important. Dropping people into a foreign story often leaves them with a sense of irrationality where politics and history are actually at work. OK, I’m thinking out loud now.