Foreign coverage is a classic field of journalism, much older than digitization. Nevertheless, common criticisms show that contents and structures of international reporting need an update in many regards. These criticisms include, among others, imbalances and inequalities in global news flows, the (often precarious) situation of fixers and stringers, or a lack of sensibility by parachute journalists sent abroad. Calls to overcome media bias, and, closely related, to stipulate co-operation of foreign correspondents with local journalists have flourished in recent years. Ultimately, foreign reporting has been demanded to leave behind “domestic” vs. “foreign” dichotomies to transform itself into a truly global journalism paying tribute to the complexities of a globalized, thus glocalized, world.
At the same time, the field of international reporting has become very broad. While we may typically associate foreign reporters with permanent correspondents standing in front of major landmarks explaining the world in TV news, job descriptions nowadays include, among others, parachutists, highly specialized reporters focussing on ‘global’ issues such as climate change, as well as local journalists or fixers working for international outlets. Collaboration of journalists across borders has also become increasingly relevant. Such cross-border journalism is not limited, but often applied to investigative projects exploiting major data leaks.
Thus, which job descriptions should journalism schools preparing their students for foreign news coverage consider? How should they sensitize newcomers to the field to face the various challenges? To get an idea of the challenges perceived by practitioners and the journalistic skills needed to innovate contents and structures of foreign reporting, we interviewed six reporters from the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, and Romania as part of the EU-funded project NEWSREEL2 – New Teaching Fields for the Next Generation of Journalists.
Five interviewees represented rather “classic” roles in foreign reporting, including a former Washington correspondent who now works as Deputy Head of News, alongside four journalists who rather fulfil the job profiles of “special envoys” sent to areas of interest for short-term assignments. Harald Schumann, an investigative journalist and co-founder of the cross-border network Investigate Europe complimented the sample to represent the collaborative branch of international reporting.
Lack of contextualization
According to Schumann, foreign news editors “usually buy the perspective of the national governments”. He described this way of journalism as deriving from an “outdated system” of foreign coverage generating “narrow-minded, national perspective journalism.” While critical of the role foreign correspondents play within this system, Schumann stressed that he is “not strictly against” sending such permanent envoys abroad: “But to have the correspondents as the only source you know in these other countries while you decide about a headline and a major message, this is really bad journalism.” Rather, he emphasized the importance of working together with local journalists, even if it is just to verify a small piece of information.
A lack of contextualization of foreign coverage was also diagnosed by András Földes, a video journalist at the news website Telex.hu, and Carmen Gavrila, Foreign Affairs Correspondent at Romanian public radio Radio România. Both stressed a lack of in-depth international reporting in their countries because many newsrooms just translated articles from international media or news agencies.
Lack of funding as major obstacle
All in all, our interviewees did describe foreign correspondents as a still crucial element within the structures of international reporting, but pointed towards limited resources for upholding large networks of permanent news bureaus or even freelance foreign correspondents.
From the perspective of our interviewees, a lack of funding is clearly a major obstacle for further innovations in international reporting overall. Shrinking budgets for both permanent correspondents and international reporters sent abroad from time to time seem to worsen the conditions. Ricardo Alexandre, Deputy Director and Foreign Affairs Editor at Portugal’s private radio station TSF, identified technological changes, as another reason why international reporters may travel less than before, since it is “easier to talk to anyone on the other side of the world” nowadays.
What practitioners expect from journalism training
Overall, the respondents diagnosed a tendency to neglect international issues in the respective national curricula of journalism education. At the same time, the interviewees agreed that reporting skills for domestic and international issues are in large part interchangeable, as doing journalistic research is not fundamentally different abroad. They though considered an in-depth background knowledge on international issues and language skills as key assets for young professionals pursuing a career in international reporting.
In the context of potential topics to be included in university-level courses on international reporting, Martin Řezníček, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Czech public TV Česká Televize, suggested that theoretical knowledge of international issues should be combined with practical elements: “If you, as a university, for example, can afford to have people sent abroad to do some assignments, then it’s great.”
Ricardo Alexandre mentioned geopolitics as another important issue to be covered, as well as ethical and psychological aspects of reporting from war and conflict zones. Despite the oft analysed trend of parachute journalism, specialization for a certain country or world region still seems to be a decisive recruiting reason: “You need to have people who do focus on a particular country and are able, when something happens, to get a tie on and a shirt and go to the studio and talk about it in ten minutes without blinking”, Martin Řezníček said.
Summing up, our research underlines that journalism trainers should adapt their curricula to the contemporary diversity of the field. Considering the increasingly “networked” character of international reporting, journalism schools need to consider the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate with colleagues from abroad as sources, experts, “fixers”, contributors, or just partners in joint journalistic investigations. An in-depth knowledge on bias and stereotypes, international relations and geopolitics, is crucial to prepare journalists for reporting foreign issues from abroad. While this might appear mundane at first sight, funding opportunities are another important issue to be included, given the scarcity of resources for international reporting in many countries and newsrooms.
Special thanks to the interviewees: Ricardo Alexandre (TSF), Ramona Avramescu (TVR), András Földes (Telex.hu), Martin Řezníček (Česká televize), Harald Schumann (Der Tagesspiegel/Investigate Europe)
The full reports of the study are available within the NEWSREEL2 research report.
This article was written by Dominik Speck (Erich Brost Institute).