Foreign Correspondents and the Colour of Truth

Why the future of international journalism could (and should) be red and white — While the news organizations of the Western world are closing down bureaus overseas, the opportunity for Canadian journalists to become the new leaders in international reporting is here.

The accelerated news cycle goes on day and night as journalism subscribes to a culture of to-the-second breaking news. Information defies borders as the global village connects through the Internet and social media. News organizations release information accessible to a worldwide audience. Because of the unprecedented growth in communication technology since the 1980s, it took less than a few decades for foreign correspondence to complete its rise to popularity before summarily being limited as too costly an extravagance by news producers

But cutting back international reporting leaves a void felt by audience and journalists alike. Though the decrease in “feet on the ground” foreign reporters is an effective way to decrease costs, it leaves accuracy – or rather, trust – in a news organization’s reporting behind.

Western news producers are finding it easier to count on wire services, foreign news organizations and even social media as sources for fact gathering without bearing witness to an event of worldwide importance. One can argue that Twitter’s 140 characters, an RSS feed or a quick homepage update can break news quicker than a Canadian journalist can be flown into a foreign country, or even respond in a timely fashion if they are already there. But as we have seen in the last few years, egregious discrepancies in what is true have risen from collecting information solely from sources outside an international reporter’s direct experience.

After all, the point of an international correspondent is having someone trusted at the front lines, reporting back to Canada.

Why Canadian journalists?

In the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism 2010 article Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?, Richard Sambrook makes a good point when he writes that, even in the digital age, “reporting of international events is expected to be provided by independent journalists employed for that purpose by a news organisation.”

An audience has not ceased to want, and to a degree, need, dedicated foreign correspondents. The Canadian public’s expectation is much the same, borne of the trust it gives a news organization. And though some information gathered from secondary sources can indeed be trusted, nothing beats having Canadian journalists gathering facts on-site.

And Canadian journalists are equipped with the right prism to shine these facts through, analyze them and report them back not only to their own country, but to the rest of the world.

To say that Canada prides itself on its level of multiculturalism is no stretch of the imagination. The idea of a distinctly Canadian culture hangs a question mark over the heads of most Canadians I know, who argue instead that Canada is comprised of interdependent, yet ultimately fragmented, cultures. It is because Canadian journalists keep this kind of audience in mind that they gain the awareness of cultural diversity that makes them so well-purposed to international reporting. Whether at home or abroad, the Canadian journalist’s sensitivity to all walks of life adds depth to their reports and an understanding of issues from non-Canadian points of view.

In the recent coverage of the tsunami in Japan, and regardless of the absence of a distinctly Canadian angle in some reportage, news organizations in Canada kept their audience’s attention by avoiding an approach that tried to blanket or homogenize their audience. The average Canadian international report hit home with the specific Japanese-Canadian culture. And, with Canadians generally having a genuine interest in the lives of their fellow citizens, the rest of Canada followed suit, regardless of cultural background. The result was an outpouring of sympathy, awareness and discussion thanks to the right balance between niche and broad engagement in world news.

On the other hand, had Canadian news organizations opted for a blanket, American-style approach, they would have lost both the culturally-specific audience whom the tsunami affected within our borders as well as the broader, Canadian audience. An example of this occurrence is a sensational front cover printed by Maclean’s Magazine: “The Future Belongs to Islam.” It marginalized a culture, assumed a status quo amongst Canadians and ultimately cost them the subscriptions of several of my colleagues.

The convention that avoids shoehorning elements that appeal to a broad audience in international reporting is seemingly built into Canadian journalism, and it helps create a demand for Canadian sources internationally. The beauty of how Canadian reporting differs from the rest of the world is its focus on the international audience within its borders – the same kind of audience that exists abroad. Because of this, Canadian reportage is sought by and is comprehensive for foreign audiences.

Reentering the market

So why is Canada just another Western nation that followed the trend of cutting back international correspondence? It is time Canada reenters the market, and dominates it.

If money is still an issue, and it really is, bear in mind how empty the Western news market is of foreign correspondence. Westerners end up turning to foreign sources like Al Jazeera English for what looks like the familiar, classic foreign correspondence they have always relied on. This demand led to AJE’s opening a foreign bureau in Toronto last year, entering the competition for a North American audience. In the process, the CRTC received over 2,800 positive letters and emails from Canadians demanding AJE via satellite services. A good guess as to why is the network’s handling of foreign affairs and their mix of over 50 cultures amongst their employees. And yet, while foreign news organizations are being quick to fill the foreign reporting gap in the West, Canada’s longtime competitor offers less than ever.

In the 2008 J-Source article Shrinking Newspapers, Shrinking World, Deborah Jones used the example that The New York Times reported “’almost two-thirds of American newspapers publish less foreign news than they did just three years ago, nearly as many print less national news, and despite new demands on newsrooms like blogs and video, most of them have smaller news staffs, according to a new study.”

The future of Canada’s news

So, why are Canadian news organizations allowing foreign media to take over? The strengths of AJE are the strengths that Canadian journalists have already cultivated over the last few decades. It would only make sense that Canadian news producers reenter what is now essentially an empty market, one with steadily increasing demand, and capitalize on it instead of letting it be taken over by foreign media. If anything, it is a good business decision.

With a reinvigorated interest foreign news, Canadian news organizations will also be able to tap into the new wave of journalists that are being currently being trained. A concern Western news organizations may have with reentering the foreign news market is that we have gotten out of practice in the realm of foreign correspondence. A future in Canadian foreign reporting will require a certain kind of journalist.

Sambrook concludes in his article that “There is a need for greater specialism and training of journalists to accurately reflect complex stories across boundaries. In an interconnected world, international journalism needs to be better informed and more culturally aware than ever.”

The fact is, Canadian journalism schools are creating exactly this kind of journalist. Here in the masters of arts in journalism program at the University of Western Ontario, our class is living these tenets. We are taught the multicultural sensibilities I have argued Canadian journalists have honed so well. We are taught how to connect world issues across boundaries. Doubtlessly, this approach is similar at Ryerson, Carleton and the rest of Canada. But what baffles me most is that J-students are taught how important correspondence is while our future employers shut it down.

So, it is time Canadian news realizes that everything is there: Canadian journalists are good at it, the market’s ready and the resources are there. The panic of moving into the digital age brought about hasty and unnecessary changes, but at least we realize it now. Globalization did not kill foreign reporting: it is revolutionizing it, and Canadian journalists can be at its head if we take the chance.


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