Remember the “Where’s Waldo?” books, challenging kids to find the not-so-subtly dressed namesake in the midst of an equally colorful and crowded setting? Oddly enough, I was thinking about them last week while talking to my students about the coverage of international news.
What do Waldo and foreign news coverage have in common? It could be that although neither Waldo nor the events and people of the world are easy to find at times, they are both there if we take a little time looking for them.
The traditional lament is that the nation’s news media have cut back drastically on the coverage of international news. That is an accurate statement. There are fewer eyes on the world from the likes of the network news companies and newspapers like The Chicago Tribune, which collapsed all their foreign bureaus and let their sister paper The Los Angeles Times staff them instead. Of course the LA Times is also cutting back, too, as are all newspapers around the country.
The reason, however, is not that journalists don’t believe the world is a pretty good story. In this age of globalization, it is more a story than it ever has been. The problem is that the media exist in the same market-driven economy as every other business. So they will turn their attention to the places and stories that interest readers and viewers.
Local news comes first
And Americans are more interested in America than anywhere else. The international media scholar Jaap vanGinneken writes about the unwritten rule of news priorities in America when he posits that 10,000 deaths on another continent equals 1,000 deaths in another country, equals 100 deaths in another state, equals ten deaths in the capital city, equals one celebrity.
That’s a little paraphrased, but you get the idea. As John Cougar Mellencamp sang, “Ain’t That America?”
Yet there is another side, or I should say sides, of this debate on cutbacks of international news coverage. You could make a strong case that the only cutbacks are in those media we’ve traditionally looked to for world news. In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few other windows to the world and these portals have been mushrooming. Like the following:
* The World Wide Web. Remember it? That’s the portal that features a lot more than Words With Friends and Facebook. Hard to believe, but true. Did you know there is even one site, sponsored by the Newseum in Washington D.C. that allows you to scroll through today’s front pages of 626 newspapers from 60 countries around the world? And did you know you can find virtually any newspaper in the world simply by going to a listing like onlinenewspapers.com and clicking on the paper you want, some of which have English translations available?
* Alternative News Portals. Although they may take you out of your comfort zone in reading about or seeing the world through the prism of Western eyes, some significant alternative news agencies have developed over the past 20 years or so. The most significant of these — by far — is Al Jazeera. This is the independent news agency out of Qatar that offers both a newspaper and video stories of the world’s news, and it offers them through the prism of the Middle East and not the West.
Al Jazeera had the most profound effect on the flow of international news of any news organization in recent memory. Entire regions of the world now feel their story can be told through non-Western eyes, and that’s a big thing for them. We may not agree with the Al Jazeera viewpoint, but it is interesting to have an alternative view of world events.
In looking at world news impact, you could also make a strong case for CNN as well, especially if you’re talking about CNN International and not Domestic. The former has a lot of non-Western correspondents.
* New Models of News Media. Into the hole left by closed foreign news bureaus of traditional media have stepped some new kinds of news media organizations. On the international scene, one hopeful sign is Globalpost.com. It’s mission, straight from its Web page, reads: “The GlobalPost Mission is to provide original international reporting rooted in integrity, accuracy, independence and powerful storytelling that informs, entertains and fills the void created by diminished foreign coverage by American media.”
It is staffed by a network of foreign correspondents who live in the regions of the world they cover and who contribute their reports as freelancers to Globalpost, which has only 18 full-time staffers at its Boston headquarters. The funding comes from a small group of private investors who believe in the importance of international news. Globalpost also accepts advertising and offers subscription services to members who join.
The job is ours
Ultimately, the responsibility for keeping up with world news lies with each of us as individuals who should want to be informed citizens of that world. It’s not that hard to find news of the world; it’s just located largely in places where we aren’t used to looking.
But then, Waldo wasn’t always where he was supposed to be either, was he?