Fall 2010 | Online Exclusives

Should Local Voices Bring Us Foreign News?

‘Depending on who is making the argument, the idea of not having foreign correspondents is either something to fear or look forward to.’

By Solana Larsen
In the multitude of stories about Iran’s “Twitter revolution,” hardly a mention could be found of pro-Ahmadinejad bloggers writing in Persian. Yet there were plenty of them, and what they were saying about Iran’s president was a critical piece of the story. I get most my international news from local bloggers so I could follow what they were writing (in translation). In my job as managing editor at Global Voices Online, a community of more than 300 volunteers who monitor and translate blogs and online citizen media from their own countries, we make the words of bloggers—from almost everywhere—available for others to read.

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As with the Iranian bloggers, Global Voices Online reveals local perspectives that often go unnoticed in mainstream news coverage. The recipe is simple. Our volunteers alert us to important conversations taking place in online media where they live. On one day it’s about gay bloggers in Uganda standing up for their rights. On another day it’s about reactions by South Koreans to North Korea’s World Cup soccer game or the suspicious deaths of several animals in a Ukraine zoo.

It’s a grassroots media newsroom. Our small staff of part-time editors reviews submissions for quality, but we rarely turn down a story. I trust my Chinese colleagues to tell me why something is important rather than arbitrarily deciding whether it’s newsworthy. What we try to do is bring perspectives to the fore that aren’t heard anywhere else. While news stories about the coup last year in Madagascar tended to echo the French foreign ministry rather than the Malagasy people themselves, Global Voices Online helped international journalists reach bloggers from Madagascar who offered a citizen’s perspective.

Events don’t look the same when they are told from the inside out. I am reminded of this daily as I compare our stories with those I see in newspapers. And I know what we do is special when I hear from foreign news reporters who have to fight with editors to be allowed to tell (or sell) important stories from abroad. If they do not have the luxury of reporting to an international audience, they must also find a local angle so that Western audiences will connect with the story from something other than a human angle.

Local Knowledge

Imagine the difference if all foreign news was told by reporters who are native to the country where events happen. I am convinced it would change which stories are told, how they are reported, and how audiences respond to them.

A few years ago I suggested during an Internet media conference in Los Angeles that one day soon there would be no foreign correspondents. I argued that foreign reporters who parachute into a country without the language skills to even read a local newspaper are not going to do a better job than native journalists. This was soon after the riots in Tibet, and CNN and other news organizations were experiencing a backlash from Chinese netizens who were furious about the misreporting of several events.

Given our emerging global media environment, I proposed that we have no option but to ask local journalists to help us do a better job. My words triggered responses from the audience in which I was labeled naïve and irresponsible. So it was surprising that Richard Sambrook, who was then the director of BBC’s global news, stood up and said he agreed with me. Parachute journalism was on the way out, he said, and hundreds of local stringers were already on the job for the BBC.

Depending on who is making the argument, the idea of not having foreign correspondents is either something to fear or look forward to. Many younger people I speak with seem to find the idea obvious. Given the rate at which foreign news coverage is declining, what other alternative do we have? The pool of talent for those who can tell these stories must become bigger and more geographically and linguistically diverse.

My own position is not absolutist. There will always be writers who travel abroad, and there will always be people capable of international analysis. I believe that foreign correspondents do an important job and would never suggest that all local journalists are better. Nor am I making the case that citizen journalists should replace foreign correspondents. Grassroots blogging informs my views and widens my horizons, but I still believe in professional journalism. Finally, where a journalist is born and raised does not necessarily determine that person’s level of knowledge or experience. But intimate knowledge of the language or culture where one is reporting is important—perhaps even more important than intimate knowledge of the audience.

For those who see doom ahead, I have a more optimistic perspective on a future without foreign correspondents. When Global Voices Online is at its best, I feel deeply connected to the people who are telling their stories. They sound like me when they write their blogs, whether they are in China or Iran, and whether they are describing street protests or war or writing about mundane things like rain or a traffic jam or a meeting with a suitor for an arranged marriage. Yet I don’t usually feel this kind of personal connection when an embedded journalist sends stories home from Iraq or Afghanistan. During the earthquake in Haiti as dozens of journalists interviewed foreign aid workers about a country some of them barely knew, I wondered what we were learning from their accounts. Not only are too many journalists reporting the same story; too often they are neglecting the local and personal perspectives that matter most.

NBC’s Ann Curry says she first figured out how to tell foreign news stories so they really matter to people back home when she was interviewing a woman in Africa about being raped. She realized halfway through that they were telling her story without the empathy with which they would have told it if it had happened in their own community. Curry then told her team to film the interviews “like it was your sister who had been raped.” The lights were softened and the cameras came closer, and the tone of their conversation changed.

At the end of the day, what I am talking about isn’t the passport a journalist holds, but how the language, tone and perspective of foreign correspondence can change. We do this by listening to a broader range of voices and recognizing that stories worth telling are not always identical to those told by our competitors. Most importantly, we need to report in ways that are respectful of the culture, opinions and interests of the people about whom we are writing. I am sure that many Americans would find objectionable representations in European media of them as gun-toting, Christian fanatics. But then there is the superb foreign news reporting of The Guardian’s Gary Younge whose insights about Americans inspired U.S. publications to want him to write for them about U.S. culture, too. When foreign reporting works best the subjects and audience learn something they didn’t know. But when journalists fumble in the dark to understand a foreign people and culture—and then report on events there—their audiences will fumble too.

Solana Larsen is the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Previously she was an editor with openDemocracy, a global politics Web site.

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