The lament in today’s Christian Science Monitor by Andrew Stroehlein, the communications chief at the International Crisis Group, about the disappearance of experienced foreign correspondents and the consequences of that for our understanding of global affairs is pretty spot on. As a former foreign correspondent, I am pained about what is not being covered and horrified frequently at the nature and qualityof the reporting of foreign events that are covered. Stroehlein cites the puerile and simplistic US coverage of the piracy off the coast of Somalia. “We were stuck with stories of tangential importance, written like Hollywood film scripts from editorial offices thousands of miles away,” he rightly sniffs.
He points out that as international news coverage decreases, the traffic to the Web Sites of organizations like ICG’s increases as people search for reliable information. But he points out that “non-news organizations have neither the capacity nor the aim to provide daily news” and so they can’t replace the disappearing foreign correspondents.
I agree with him that they can’t replace, but they can supplement the news and inform more than they already are doing. It is a point I have stressed to NGOs, universities and international organizations I have worked for or advised: Think-tanks and universities, NGOs and charities have all experienced massive increases in Web traffic with a lot of it coming from search engines. Visitors have a thirst for news and information that they find hard to secure from the official news sites. So whether they like it or not these knowledge-based organizations are becoming news producers and serving as news platforms. They should embrace it more and start to learn to develop this function more thoughtfully and systematically. More resident journalists should be employed. On Capitol Hill there is a debate about allowing newspapers to become non-profits. I would argue that some non-profits should develop specialist news arms.
It would be a public service and is clever marketing and allows these knowledge-based organizations to help shape news and political agendas. Would they be objective in their coverage? Have newspaper reporters been objective? The best you could hope for from old-fashioned foreign correspondents was some fairness and balance — and I don’t mean of the Fox News variety!
Of course, it doesn’t solve all the problems of the disappearing foreign correspondents. But the past is past. In the future we will get our news from a variety of sources and be able to be our own news editors. NGOs and non-profits are going to be one major source.