How cutting budgets might improve foreign news coverage

Last night I went to see the multi-award winning journalist Michela Wrong talk about working in sub-Saharan Africa. Chatham House Rules applied (i.e. everything was off the record and no quotes) but one thing she said got me thinking.

She mentioned that the serious cutbacks in foreign news reporting meant papers, broadcasters and agencies were no longer sending in Western correspondents but instead using local journalists. This, she said, might actually make the coverage better as they could provide local knowledge that the Westerner never can.

Now I have been deeply critical of the demise of foreign news coverage in newspapers. At the beginning of this month a truly brilliant report by the Media Standards Trust showed that the amount of foreign news coverage in British papers had fallen from 20% in 1979 to 11% in 2009.

I am deeply worried about the demise of top quality foreign news reporting. In fact one of the consequences of the internet has been that more and more people have reported on fewer and fewer things.  But this is an interesting point about the quality of the news.

If big agencies cut back and instead of hiring Western employees to swan in and get the story they hire local reporters who know the system and can give a better-rounded, historical perspective then this might actually improve foreign news coverage. And it might provide a new model of financing it in an era when budgets have never been so tight.

It would require a step change in thinking, however, for Western journalists to stop looking at local journalists as essentially sources for their stories and start thinking of them as equals. And it would require a lot more work training top quality local journalists in some of the world’s poorest regions. And there is the further point that British audiences tend to respond better to British reporters (particularly in broadcasting). But it could make foreign reporting more affordable at a time when it is more important than ever.

Let us be clear: the decision to cut foreign correspondents is not motivated by a desire to improve foreign reporting but to cut budgets. But it might, just might, have the consequence of doing the latter as well.

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