The Media as Conduit for Transatlantic Understanding

May 16, 2003

Most of what we know about what is presently happening beyond the borders of our countries we know because we read it or see it or hear it through the reporting of our countries’ news organizations. Maintaining correspondents in other countries is a news organization’s most expensive commitment to informing its consumers.

How America’s media cover the world is the question that I asked in a book entitled International News and Foreign Correspondents, published in 1996. The answer, unfortunately, was not very well.

What had happened was that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, international news became less interesting to most Americans, and consequently many U.S. news organizations, especially the television networks, gladly closed or trimmed their costly bureaus around the world.

Between 1992 and 1996 there was a 63 percent decline in the number of minutes the three broadcast networks–ABC, CBS, and NBC–devoted to stories from their foreign bureaus.

Today’s irony, of course, is that because Americans now perceive the world as dangerous again, the amount of international news goes up.

On Saturday, May 3, the first section of my hometown newspaper, The Washington Post, had 9 pages of world news with 3 stories carrying over from the front page. There were stories from a dozen countries and 10 of the 12 stories were written by the Post’s own foreign correspondents. In addition to the stories emanating from Baghdad and the Middle East, other headlines were “Hope Dims in Turkey Quake,” “India Makes Gesture to Pakistan,” “Taiwan Reports Rise in SARS,” “Chinese Submarine Accident Kills 70,” “Argentine Farmland Is Flooded,” “A Survivor Recounts Horrors Of North Korea Prison Camps,” and “Striking Nigerian Oil Workers Agree to Free Hostages.” There was a staff-written story from Paris in the paper’s business section about the appointment of a Swede to head a Dutch company that has considerable holdings in Washington. In the arts section there was a story datelined Helsinki, a half page with 3 photographs, about the architectural works of Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen, which the Post’s staff writer called “refreshing, humane and even mysterious.”

One would like to think that this is a harbinger of increased attention to the world in the U.S. press, even if much of the reporting is of disasters. But The Washington Post, a great newspaper, is not typical, and most media analysts think the typical news organization will return to parachuting reporters into hot spots rather than maintaining foreign bureaus staffed by correspondents with cultural and language facilities.

Yet if the United States media are only sporadically interested in the rest of the world, the rest of the world is often fascinated by what is happening in the United States. This is not a new phenomenon. I like to think that the first foreign correspondent in the United States was Alexis de Tocqueville, whose travels in 1831-32 produced his acclaimed work, Democracy in America. Charles Dickens’ reportage, American Notes (1843), on the other hand, was almost universally panned. Filled with inconsequential details, one British reviewer felt it was like Dickens writing “the play of Hamlet, with the character of Hamlet omitted.”

How the U.S. is covered today is the subject of my present research. Part of this future book (to be called Through Their Eyes) is a survey I conducted in 1999 in which 439 foreign correspondents filled out an elaborate questionnaire about themselves, their relations with their home offices, and their stories. Of these half were located in Washington, 38 percent in New York, one in ten in California, with a handful in other places. Twenty percent of my sample were part-timers, persons who often come to America as spouses, students, or for other reasons and contribute to the media in their home countries.

Let’s focus on the news organizations from the countries that have gathered here today: Finland, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. There were 11 respondents from Finland, 30 from France, 39 from Germany, and 29 from the UK. Fourteen of the reporters are part-timers.

The first impression is that these foreign correspondents are mature and experienced journalists. The average age is 43, the average number of years in journalism is 17, the average number of years in the U.S. as a foreign correspondent is nearly 7. The figures are almost identical for each country. (For instance, average age for Finland and France, 41; UK, 43; Germany, 44.) Clearly, the 69 men and 26 women who are the fulltime correspondents are on a fast track; some had been correspondents in other capitals, Moscow, London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo; some will return home to be top editors or TV anchors. Last year at a public meeting I asked Andrei Sitov, the Washington bureau chief of ITAR-TASS to characterize his assignment. “It’s the talk of the world,” he replied. “It’s the best beat. And I feel it is a personal and professional privilege to work here.” The European correspondents work hard, partly because they are working against the clock, with morning deadlines that are almost before serious sources have arrived in their offices. The problem multiplies as the story moves west to California. (By contrast, American reporters sleep late.)

Part of my questionnaire asked respondents to describe their most recent story: subject, length, preparation (such as events attended, interviews, documents), where the idea for the story came from, and what was the involvement of the home office. Collectively, this information gives us a sort of day in the life of foreign coverage of the United States.

About a third of the correspondents’ stories were breaking news. (Finland, 27%; Germany, 33%; UK and France, 37%). During this period–May-June, 1999–the biggest story was Kosovo, obviously of considerable interest to European countries. The increase in breaking news stories is a direct result of technological changes. Through the 1950s most foreign correspondents for print outlets stationed in the United States sent their stories home by mail. Having to rely on postal service meant that they were more apt to write long analytical pieces that could survive a week in transit. The capacity of instant communication pressures foreign correspondents to duplicate what their organizations can now see first on CNN or read on the Web sites of the New York Times or USA Today. (This is a point I shall return to later.)

The value of news organizations using such expensive human commodities as foreign correspondents to report on headline news–other than the prestige of having their own organization’s byline on the story–is problematical. Besides the time problem (filing stories by late morning), there is the access problem (reflecting the priorities of government officials: “There are no American voters in Helsinki”). As a result, breaking news reporting is often a rewrite of the American press. Says Jean-Jacques Mevel, U.S. bureau chief of Le Figaro, “If you asked for a proportion, I would say that 80 percent of my production is basically rehashing what the American media is doing.” Toby Harden, Washington bureau of London’s Daily Telegragh, agrees: “There is no doubt that we draw heavily on the American press.” [By the way, the comments of Sitov, Mevel, and Harden are in a book, The Media and the War on Terrorism, that Brookings will publish in June.]

After breaking news, the second key element of reporting from America is the “home angle.” The Finns are particularly taken with this type of story: A Finnish woman in the U.S. fights for custody of her children; a Finn produces a play in New York; the real estate market in Florida’s Finnish vacation area; a reunion of Thomas Jefferson’s descendants, some of whom have Finnish blood. The French also like these stories, such as one that its writer titles “brain drainage of French intellectuals,” a portrait of a French scientist in the Silicon Valley, or an article about the artistic director of Tiffany’s because Tiffany’s was about to open a store in Paris. The British and Germans were less into the home angle.

What especially interests me by this emphasis on the home angle is that a quantitative study I did 20 years earlier (1979) for the German Marshall Fund of the United States showed that European newspapers “give modest notice to the foreign events that most directly relate to their consumers.” Writing in a publication called Transatlantic Perspectives, I faulted the absence of home angle material–and German reporters in Washington promptly held a meeting to fault me. I continue to think these are engaging stories and I’m glad more editors are making room for them.

Hollywood and Wall Street are perennial subjects. The opening of the “Star Wars” sequel, “The Phantom Menace,” rated attention in 1999. All four countries are equally interested in news of the movies. But the Germans and the British were more interested in business stories than the French and Finns. “Two-fers”–two subjects for the price of one–are always good, such as business-plus-home-angle, as in “How to Invest in Massachusetts,” a series on 20 states that are interested in German companies, or another story on German actors in Hollywood.

Any large compilation of a day’s reporting, foreign or domestic, sweeps in some marginalia, often designed for titillation. Thus readers of a French magazine could learn about transsexuals in Los Angeles (with photographs), Internet sex sites (in a German magazine) or medicinal mushrooms (in a British newspaper).

A final category is reporting that supports stereotypes. The distinguished Columbia University historian Simon Schama recently wrote a brilliant essay in The New Yorker called “The Unloved American,” detailing two centuries of European stereotypes of Americans. Stereotyping, as a concept developed by Walter Lippmann in his book Public Opinion (1922), has the advantage to fast-moving journalists of oversimplification yet being defensible because it contains a kernel of truth. The stereotype of the United States as a violent and crime-ridden society, for example, I found reflected in such stories as “Executioner in Mississippi” (on German TV), “A Visit to the Louisiana State Penitentiary” (on German Radio), “Female Inmates in American Jails” (in a French newspaper), and a British magazine’s story about a man murdered because of what he said on a daytime TV show. This point is driven home by an interview last October with a French correspondent in Washington who said, “I was told recently by one of my superiors that the DC area sniper is getting roughly equal play to the debate about Iraq in the European Union because the sniper brings home all these stereotypes about the United States as a lawless place where any wacko can wreck havoc and frequently does.”

At the same time, how odd that in a nation known for its religiosity, there was only one article from the four countries that touched on religion.

I have spotted one anti-stereotyping activity that is encouraging, however. In my 1979 survey, I found that foreign correspondents rarely visited areas of the United States away from the coasts and almost always only went to large cities. Commented a journalism educator at the time, “They don’t see and talk to Americans who bowl on Tuesday nights, attend stock car races, guzzle beer at [American] Legion halls, or shoot baskets in a ghetto school yard.” My latest survey found that foreign correspondents now cast their nets wider. German journalists in 1998, for example, reported from Missoula, Montana; Terre Haute, Indiana; Lincoln, Nebraska; Rapid City, South Dakota; Knoxville, Tennessee; Bismarck, North Dakota, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, among places that are off the beaten path. Part of the reason, I think, is that new technology now allows TV crews to travel light and that deregulation has lowered domestic airfares. But for whatever reason, this is a healthy development.

This deconstruction of a day’s worth of news from America should not imply that there was little to admire. I had lots of favorites, among them an article in a French magazine on the state of public schools, a German TV series of five stories on the neighborhoods of New York City, a German newspaper analysis of the relationship between President Clinton and Jesse Jackson, and a fascinating commentary by Martin Kettle of the Guardian on what he calls “the British preoccupation with American disaster.”

Yet does the combination of breaking news, home angles, Hollywood, Wall Street, marginalia, and the broad brush strokes of fixed impressions (stereotypes) add up to an approximate portrait of a vast and diverse country?

Of course not.

This was the same criticism I made of the U.S. media’s coverage of the world in my 1996 book when noting the “preassigned roles” that the American news organizations give to other countries. “If the story was about Columbia,” I wrote, “the subject must be drugs; in Italy, the Mafia; in Germany, neo-Nazis. Stories about Japan focused on commerce: Japanese tourists look for bargains in the United States… Japanese business makes money while clearing up the environment; Japan’s economy is in a slump.”

Still, I fear that the situation in one respect is worse today. Again, the cause is a consequence of technological change. A famous British foreign correspondent once said, “Happiness is in direct proportion to distance from the home office.” Now there is CNN and the Internet. This is from one of our interviews last August with a German TV correspondent in Washington:

Question: “A lot of your editors in Germany are watching CNN before you even get up. Do they ever call and ask you to cover, for example, a random police chase in Kansas? Does that happen?”

Answer: “Absolutely. And that is new. It used to be [when] I got here [in the early ’90s that] they didn’t have CNN yet all over. It was starting [to spread] after the Gulf War [because] it got really big. It used to be they basically couldn’t control you as much… Now, with CNN–they got it running all the time–and you have to react to that, so that the pressure is bigger to [keep up with CNN].”

With the home office only a computer terminal away, editors and producers are in constant contact with their reporters in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, and the home office is much more likely to assign stories than in the past. Reporters for UK organizations told me that 22% of their story ideas came from London. The figure for German stories was one in three (33%). Nearly half (47%) of the French stories were requests from the home office.

My study will document the profound reaction of French journalists to their home offices keeping them on such a short leash. (The longer the leash, the fewer complaints.) A sampling of comments from the French:

–An AFP reporter, “My editors are slow to act on my suggestions, even though I know a lot more about the U.S. than they do.” A French freelancer writes of her editors, “They usually want what is on the AFP reports. It can be very frustrating when my findings are different than the AFP’s.”

–A magazine writer says her editors’ stereotypes “affect the choice of stories they would like me to write.” A TV reporter complains that his editors’ requests “are more stereotypical” than what he wants to report.

— A newspaper reporter says that her editors “tend to like stories that show the extremes of American society–violence, political correctness, anti-abortion movements, etc.”

These comments reflect more than turf battles or bruised egos, although both are probably considerations. Rather, it is a matter of perspective. Those on the ground are better positioned to observe nuance and variation.

The activities of governments will always be reported–how well, in part, depends on the openness of governments. But how well another country is understood through the media depends on a different ordering of priorities in the business of foreign correspondence. It strikes me as a basic rule of thumb that we will never truly get beyond recycling stereotypes until news organizations direct their foreign correspondents to ask the same questions of other societies that their readers or listeners care about in their own countries: How do people educate their children, deal with health care, practices their beliefs; describe the work place; what is it like to grow old, to be in love?

Good journalism makes better transatlantic relations.