Risky Business? International Correspondents Discuss Changes to Foreign Coverage
It used to be that covering dangerous people wasn’t all that dangerous.
There was a time – and really not that long ago – that these folks (i.e. members of organizations like Al-Qaeda and Taliban) would highly regard the journalists who covered their stories. They’d protect them; they’d even buy them lunch.
But it’s now a different world, says Bob Reid, who’s worked with the Associated Press for more than 40 years, spearheading AP’s coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and in 2012 was named the bureau chief for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
“ISIS doesn’t feel it needs us,” Reid said. “ISIS questions whether there’s any role for a foreign reporter. Therefore, you’re considered a combatant.”
Social media – and the fact that anyone can upload video and publish tweets – means dangerous groups and terror organizations no longer need news correspondents to communicate to an audience, experts say.
Then there’s the practicality of things: Physical risk and increasing expense prohibits foreign correspondence.
Years ago, organizations like AP had roughly nine journalists working out of Baghdad and about 50 people providing security to them.
“This cost a bloody fortune,” Reid said. “No organization has money anymore. We’re talking print dollars for internet dimes.”
Protect Yourself, Protect Your Sources
Reid actually was in the audience, during a recent panel talk at the National Press Club by the International Correspondents Committee.
The committee was examining changes to the way American journalists cover the world.
Gone is the romantic picture of a foreign correspondent in a long trench coat, moving in and out of different countries and covering exciting stories.
Today, even your source can be a target, said Giovanna Dell’Orto, a former AP newswoman and current associate professor of journalism with the University of Minnesota.
“It can be a problem for sources to be seen with a journalist,” Dell’Orto said. “You can harm your sources by talking with them.”
Dell’Orto discussed her book, AP Foreign Correspondents in Action, which talks about shifting international relations and the growing physical and financial hurdles to reporting the world’s stories. Dell’Orto interviewed 61 correspondents who covered huge events, including World War II, Syrian civil war, and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan.
She’s seen journalists push the limits of physical safety and compromise their own security.
“The freedom to speak is a human right,” Dell’Orto says. “I think one of the strongest demonstrations of the power of journalism is the violence and the efforts to shut it down.”
Once Upon a Telegram
Myron Belkind, a journalism instructor with George Washington University and retired longtime AP foreign correspondent, recalled his international reporting in New Delhi years ago.
He filed stories via telegram; it could take hours or days for stories to reach London or New York.
Today, journalists write stories from the middle of a country from their laptops or tablets.
Matthew Pennington, an AP reporter covering Asia-related foreign policy, said one the bigger changes to the delivery of international news is video.
“TV is increasingly important,” Pennington said. “People want to see moving pictures to go with the story.”
Other changes: AP is being more selective about its foreign news coverage, increasing its investigative reporting work, and balancing breaking news with in-depth pieces.
AP always has made every effort to keep its correspondents safe, Pennington said.
Other news organizations have moved to rely on freelancers, who must stay on top of their own safety and issues like insurance.
So what’s the future in international news coverage?
“We increasingly rely on local correspondents to cover a country,” Pennington said. “The best way to break in is to be out in the region and picked up as a local hire to work for a local, English language news outlet and work your way up into an international outlet.”
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