Notes from the Field

Foreign News & Analysis More Important than Ever

August 5, 2009

In Afghanistan, a land where complexity drives everything, understanding its dynamics well enough to explain them to foreigners is an extraordinary challenge. The approximately dozen, permanent, Kabul-based foreign correspondents who have remained dedicated to Afghanistan reporting are fascinating storytellers and efficient analysts. When I served in the public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in 2004, my colleagues and I often met with them not so they could interview us, but so we could interview them to better understand the situations intangible to us from within the embassy compound.

Unfortunately, on a recent return trip to Kabul, I found that despite the renewed attention on Afghanistan from President Obama, the foreign press corps based in Kabul remains undersized and over-stretched.

For the outside world, Afghanistan reporting comes from a mix of permanent correspondents, stringers, and the regional journalists who cover both Pakistan and Afghanistan simultaneously. The Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Presse, New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, NPR, Fox, and CNN maintain full-time, Kabul-based correspondents. Without them, we’d have little understanding of the key foreign policy question of the time: Afghanistan’s future and the international community’s role in it. However, as with local news, foreign news needs to be delivered with multiple and diverse viewpoints. Due to budget cuts, the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal – traditionally stalwart supporters of foreign news – rely on stringers and roving reporters in the South Asia region.

For most journalists reporting on Afghanistan for a western news agency, they are a team of just one or two people. Covering a physically taxing terrain and overall dangerous environment leaves little time to report the extent of news, good and bad, and to deliver the in-depth analysis they are otherwise capable of producing. And trends show that there is no guarantee that what they report actually goes to print or broadcast: news on Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008 was only 1 percent of the total U.S. media cycle.

Foreign bureaus are expensive to set-up, costing approximately $250,000 a year, and are especially costly in conflict areas. Dispatches from journalists shuttling in and out of Afghanistan to cover Washington decision-makers’ visits are absolutely useful, but not enough. Washington’s perspectives on international news and U.S. foreign policy needs to be complemented by the field perspectives, which only resident foreign correspondents – who daily consume the country’s politics and culture  – can contribute to.

In March 2007, I helped start The Asia Foundation’s blog, In Asia, to try to help fill the void we saw opening: field-based knowledge on the political and economic development issues of South, East, and Southeast Asia. With hundreds of international development experts scattered in 19 countries across Asia, the experiences we collectively had in promoting a peaceful, prosperous, and just Asia were remarkable – and often untold. By producing and publishing In Asia weekly we have had the opportunity to amplify the idea that what happens in Asia matters, and it matters for the rest of the world. Today, the U.S. especially is inter-dependent on Asia for matters of human, economic, and natural security, which means that our worldview needs to be broadened and deepened, not shrunken or narrowed.

Of course, any reader already interested in foreign news knows where to find it online in the blogosphere or on national or foreign news sites. Positively, new outlets like World Focus and Global Post specifically focus on international news. But the disappearance of original, foreign reporting from more mainstream national broadcast and local media is a reason for concern. The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Annual State of the Media report found that coverage of international events fell by about 40 percent in 2008. Reducing complex international events to simple headlines and broad-appeal wire stories does little to serve American citizens who may not intentionally seek out international stories, but depend on their local news rituals for information.

The decline of traditional news and newspapers in the United States seems to be an accepted trend today – however, the decline in full-time foreign correspondents and foreign news should not be. More than ever before, we need thorough reporting and analysis on overseas events delivered with the kind of insight that only comes from people who live, study, and work there. Think tanks and international development organizations like ours with offices abroad can contribute significantly to a greater understanding of foreign issues. At The Asia Foundation, we’ll continue to illuminate the ground-level complexity in Asia for our blog’s readers. But filtering information, gathering diverse opinions, and putting them into context is the craft of journalists. Budget cuts and changing business models in the newsroom will inevitably continue to remake the news landscape in the United States, but whether or not foreign bureaus should be the first to be cut should be seriously re-thought.

Katherine Brown currently works in The Asia Foundation’s Washington D.C. office and formerly worked in San Francisco as the Foundation’s Communications Manager. She is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University School of Journalism. She can be reached at kbrown@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Katherine Brown

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