The amount of international news in British dailies has significantly decreased in the last thirty years, according to a study by Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust. The report, Shrinking World: The decline of international reporting in the British press, looked at exactly how international news has shrunk, and speculates as to why and what it means for the news landscape.
David Loyn, foreign correspondent with the BBC, expressed concern in the foreword of the report at the "increasing use of video shot by official MoD cameramen (often not attributed by broadcasters who use it) and 'quasi-journalism' from NGO activists" rather than from experienced journalists. The decline in foreign reporting "reinforces insular values - prejudices - and discourages understanding among British voters," he added.
The study analysed foreign news stories in The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Mirror, looking at an "average working week" in March of 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009. The number of foreign news stories across the four papers declined each decade: from just over 500 in 1979, down to 308 in 2009. Given that the papers were also getting larger, the proportion dedicated to international news shrank from 20% down to 11%. In the Guardian and the Mirror, the proportion of international news has dropped by about a third, while it has halved in the Telegraph and Daily Mail.
The number of international stories on the front page fell dramatically between 1979 and 1989: from 65 across the four papers throughout the week to 18. There were more front pages stories of any nature in 1979, but the proportion has still fallen. However, the front page still has proportionally more international stories than in the rest of the paper.
Coverage of international politics has fallen most dramatically, the study found. It tended to be more UK focused in 2009, and the analysis did not find significant growth in coverage of emerging superpowers such as China, India and Brazil.
There are fewer professional foreign correspondents, the study found:
- - The Mirror closed its foreign desk in October 2008 and has no foreign correspondents on staff.
- - The Mail has a foreign desk in London and up to ten foreign correspondents overseas.
- - The Guardian and Observer have a total of 18 foreign correspondents: a number which has remained "fairly constant" despite a huge increase in the total number of journalists employed.
- - The Telegraph has about eight foreign correspondents on staff, probably less than half of the total in 1979.
Evidently, foreign reporting is extremely expensive. And as the report says, the instant availability of news available online has made editors less reliant on foreign correspondents for finding out what is going on on the ground. The lack of newspaper correspondents and subsequent reliance on a small number of agency correspondents means that there is more of a risk of mistakes, and a lack of competition leads to less motivation. Fewer reporters on the ground leads to news being 'reactive' rather than discovering new stories.
Why has this happened? Is it a reflection of the fact that now people can choose the type of news they read, they are less interested in that which does not directly concern them? Or is it because people are finding their international news online, directly from international sources?
With regards to the latter question, the study shows that in fact few Britons are looking outside the UK for their news, even online. It is hard to say whether there is indeed a lack of interest, but surely it is preferable not to encourage this by not reporting on it.
The study noted that international coverage declined sharply in the quality press after the end of the Cold War, something that was echoed in the US.
"The Cold War had provided a clear framework and rationale for covering international affairs. A war in Angola, for example, could immediately be placed in a bipolar Cold War context - as evidence that one side was winning and the other one losing. Who was winning and who losing similarly had a direct bearing on the UK thanks to the assumed ambitions of Soviet communism, and the over-arching threat of nuclear war."
But after 1989 putting complicated events into recognizable context became harder. The decreasing interest in the former British empire also contributed to a lack of focus.
What is the future?
A permanent foreign presence will be left largely to agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press, and the BBC, with significant contributions from the Financial Times, Times and Guardian, the study predicts. Many organisations already rely on sending out small 'SWAT teams' to cover big stories and the report believes that this will become more frequent. It also suggests that partnerships with overseas outlets will become more common.
NGOs are increasingly contributing to the availability of news, both by providing it themselves and by assisting journalists. The accuracy of the reporting is clearly jeopardized, however, by the fact that NGOs have a specific agenda to push. Citizen journalism, gathered and distributed by diverse organisations such as Demotix, Global Voices Online or Ushahidi, could also become a more important part of foreign reporting. Leaks of data through organisations such as Wikileaks might well also continue, the report said.
"The future of international news will inevitably be more complex, but news organisations need to acknowledge that complexity and see it as an opportunity rather than something to shy away from," the report concludes.
The arrival of digital media has had a vast impact on foreign reporting, and the demise of the foreign correspondent has already been debated at some length in the US, and a news organisation dedicated to filling the gaps left in international reporting launched in January 2009: GlobalPost. Would such an effort be relevant in the UK?
Source: Shrinking World