Mark Seibel, technology policy editor at the Washington Post, discusses his journalism career and best practices for connecting local issues to global dynamics. Carla Anne Robbins, adjunct senior fellow at CFR and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
FASKIANOS: Thank you and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Local Journalists Webinar for editors and journalists of student publications. We are delighted to talk today with our speaker Mark Seibel and host Carla Anne Robbins about how to connect local and campus issues to global dynamics as well as the pursuit of a journalistic career. I’m Irina Faskianos, Vice President for the National Program and Outreach at CFR.
As you may know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy. This webinar is part of CFR’s Local Journalists Initiative created to support the work of print and broadcast journalists at local outlets throughout the United States. Our programming puts participants in touch with CFR resources and expertise on international issues, to help connect the local with the global and provides a forum for sharing best practices. So thank you all for being with us. I want to remind you this webinar is on the record and the video and transcript will be posted on our website at cfr.org/local journalists.
You have bios for both Mark and Carla. But I’m just going to give you a few highlights for Carla Anne Robbins, who is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR. She is faculty director of the master of international affairs program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. And previously, she was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. So I’m going to turn it over to Carla to introduce Mark and to moderate the conversation before we open it up to all of you for your questions. So Carla, take it away.
ROBBINS: Thank you so much, Irina. And Mark, thank you so much for doing this and it’s so great that everybody has joined us from around the country. This is just-I love this. I love these seminars. I love the opportunity to talk to people in the business. I miss the business. I miss being in it every day. So this is for me is I’m a total junkie for news. So this is so much fun for me.
So Mark Seibel. So Mark has had, and is having, an extraordinary career. He was he’s now the technology policy editor at the Washington Post. He was national security editor at BuzzFeed. LOL. Before that, he had a staff which stretched from Brussels to San Francisco and they covered topics from cybersecurity to election integrity, Russian election interference, immigration, European terrorism. Before BuzzFeed, Mark with was the chief of correspondents in the McClatchy Washington bureau, managing editor of the bureau’s website, managing editor for international in Washington. He spent nineteen years at the Miami Herald where he served as foreign editor, director of international operations, and managing editor for news. He’s also worked at the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury, and the Dallas Morning News. There are two ways of looking at that he can’t hold a job, or everybody wants to hire him. I will go with the second because I know his work. Full disclosure Mark and I go back a very long way. And I was trying to remember it was in the mid- to late-1980s when you were in Mexico City. And was that with the Dallas Morning News. Is that right? Do I have that right?
SEIBEL: It was the Dallas Times Herald, a defunct publication, and it was the late 70s, early 1980s. I arrived in Miami in 1984.
ROBBINS: I’m dating myself and dating you as well. And Mark and my husband worked together at the Herald for years. And my husband, Guy, who then went on to the Post says that Mark is quote “an effing great editor”, although he doesn’t use the term effing I cleaned that up for this. And Mark is an extraordinary editor.
So, you know, I really, you have had a career that really has spanned local and global. And the question that we’re talking about today, which is how to make global issues locally relevant, both for campuses and for local newspapers. So, you know, I think it would really instructive for people to talk about how you started out in the business yourself. And when you did, did you know you wanted to cover international affairs?
SEIBEL: Well, I think I always knew I wanted to cover international affairs, even as a student journalist. And, you know, the era in which I started out in journalism was an era for mid-sized regional newspapers felt very strongly they needed to cover international events. So you had a lot of foreign bureaus at papers like the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Times Herald.
And so even as a young reporter, schools reporter actually, at the Dallas Morning News, I was sent to Mexico to cover what appeared to be some political unrest there and a change of administration in Mexico. Because obviously, if you’re in Texas, Mexico’s a local story, it’s not a foreign place. What goes on in Mexico affects events in Texas. And of course, then I suppose it’s probably still true now, Texas actually had an Office of Economic Development and Promotion in Mexico City. So the state itself recognized what its, what its interests were, aside from the fact that it was been part of Mexico.
And so we were fortunate, I think, people of my age who were entering journalism then. That there was a lot of interest at the regional journalism level in aggressively covering foreign developments that that they felt were particularly of interest to their audience. So that’s how I really got involved in that. And then, you know, I found as I went along, whether I was editing local news out of San Diego for the Los Angeles Times, or, of course, at the Miami Herald, where, you know, foreign news is just part of the DNA, I found that it was fairly easy to engage my fellow editors in international coverage. And the real key there, obviously, is to know your community and know its involvements, and its interests and then work to cover those things, because these foreign events are not irrelevant to local audiences. Which is one reason, you know, I think that we’ve always found that foreign news is well covered, particularly, you know, if it’s going to lead to war, or trade disputes or those kinds of things.
ROBBINS: So, why do you think, I mean, certainly when I started in the business, I mean, what I aspired to was to work for a great regional newspaper, and I wanted to work for the Baltimore Sun or I wanted to work for the Miami Herald, which had bureaus everywhere in those days. And the Baltimore Sun has, you know, a bureau in Jerusalem. I mean, it was just you’d think to yourself, Baltimore’s useless. Jerusalem is pretty far away from that, but it’s just these were just fabulous papers. Philadelphia Inquirer has its own bureaus and wasn’t just you know, all the nightrider papers shared one bureau, but they actually were competing with each other was an extraordinary thing.
Was the cutback all economically driven, or was there some sort of a shift in the country in which people turned inward? And there was some decision that people just didn’t care as much? I mean, we certainly saw a decline in coverage of foreign news on television in those years as well.
SEIBEL: I think a big factor in that was the expense. That it was a place that well—there are two things, I think. Two dynamics that developed, one was the financial arrangement, which was as publications became less profitable or more challenged economically, it was an easy place to cut. Per capita, a foreign reporter or a foreign staff costs more money than your local staff. Because there was travel and communications expenses and those kinds of things.
And I think another part of that dynamic was something that took hold in the journalism world that I always have always thought was simply untrue. And that’s this idea of commodity news, that everything could be gotten from the AP. So why would you try to get it yourself? And of course, that’s simply not true. And if you look at the history of Pulitzer Prizes, say for international coverage, you see that Newsday and Baltimore and Miami and you know, I don’t know who else, but those three certainly, were routinely winning Pulitzer Prizes for international coverage. It wasn’t all just, you know, the AP or the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or even the LA Times. There was, the more eyes you have out looking at events, the more you’re going to learn and discover about them. So I think there was this dangerous belief that news is a commodity. News is not a commodity.
Each reporter, each editor will bring his own perspective-his or her own perspective to the story, and in those different perspectives, new facts, new truths, new interpretations of events are going to arise. And that’s going to better inform the public, better inform policymakers. And so, you know that, but I do think that was a big problem that there took hold in the, in the hierarchy of news organizations, this idea that it was, well, it’s just commodity coverage, let’s pay the AP and be done with it. You know, but that circles also back to finance, I think it was just a money situation.
ROBBINS: So you said something, I thought it was incredibly important, which is how-and it marries up to that—which is you got to know your community to know what they’re interested in, or to bring them to what they didn’t realize they were interested in, but will discover they are interested in because you give them a good story about it. And one of the things that, you know, the challenges, of course, the different communities may be interested in different things.
You know, it was easy in Miami, let’s face it, Miami is an international city. And not that it was easy. You did an extraordinary job as foreign editor at the Miami Herald. You know, it’s not maybe as easy in other places further away from borders or the ocean but not really. The United States is a globalized country now but there are very different communities in different places.
But you did face when you worked at McClatchy. McClatchy is the old Knight Ridder, you worked at a bureau, which represented many different newspapers, and serviced many different newspapers around the country. So there were different communities that you had to know to be able to give them stories that they would want to run. I mean, they didn’t, editors didn’t have to take the stories that you guys wrote. So I was an editor, you had to be conscious of that. How do you know what your community wants to be able to give them a story that collects, connects, sorry, the global and the local? How do you how do you know that?
SEIBEL: Well, you have to, I think, you know, as an editor in Washington, had to interface with, with newspapers all over the United States. You read. You read the papers. You ask questions about it. You see what is happening in their local communities. I always say that one of the best places, and I think now that we’ve had a change in administration it will once again become something of a touch point for editors looking at this, is where are the people in your community coming from?
I was always struck as a Knight Ridder and then a McClatchy editor, by how much interest there was in the Central Valley of California in two regions of the world you wouldn’t necessarily have thought. It wasn’t Mexico. It was Laos and it was Armenia. And there was a very strong Armenian presence, and is, in California. So stories that touched on Turkey-Armenian relations, that touched on the Armenian genocide and the debate in Congress, were actually followed fairly closely, in the Central Valley, Fresno and places like that. And in the aftermath of the wars in Southeast Asia, the Vietnam War primarily, but certainly in Laos, and Cambodia, there had been a huge influx of people from Cambodia and Laos, into these cities, and they actually followed events fairly closely. And of course, as those immigrants became more comfortable in English, and had children, who of course, spoke English, like you or me, they wanted to consume news about those regions. Because it was home, or at least it was where grandma was from. And, so that was another point of reference. So really, when you look at it, I always found it fascinating. When you look at, say, the Central Valley of California, which is an agricultural region, you had the immigrant population from Mexico, the immigrant population from Armenia, and the immigrant population from Laos. And all of those were potential areas. And that doesn’t even get into the economics of it. You know, where you realize, for example, that in automobile manufacturing and in a factory that the economic conditions in Mexico were really important to whether cars were going to be built in Arlington, Texas, and where they were being supplied and all those kinds of things.
So they’re just, you know, there is probably no community in the United States that does not have some international connection that can be developed into a coverage area. You just have to look for it in and, you know, I find often that churches are very good places to mine for story ideas, because they tend to be very aware of what people might be arriving from outside the United States, what connections might exist, because they’re sort of the first social organizations that the U.S. government and refugee settlement areas, contact. So it’s a, that’s, you know, you just have to look around, I think.
ROBBINS: So immigrant communities or first generation communities, that’s you, identifying that is certainly a way of seeing demand for stories in regions around the world. But how do you connect the more general population to global issues?
I mean, things like, you know, disinformation, right. Or, you know, Russian interference in the elections, which obviously, maybe that’s too politicized, because, but I mean, how do you get people to trade or something like that? How do you get people to a story that many people would see as an “eat your peas” story? How do you get them to see that that actually has a huge impact on their personal life and it’s worth reading about?
SEIBEL: Well, first off, I don’t think people are naturally uninterested in things. I believe that people, particularly consumers, of news, are interested in news. They’re interested in new topics. They’re interested in being informed.
So it’s like, with any topic, you can make it boring, or you can work hard and figure out how it’s interesting. So it may well be it’s being aware of the origin of things that people in your community are buying, you know. And then you have to tell an interesting story. I mean, that’s always the problem. Where the challenge is to find an interesting approach. But it could be the people, it could-you could be following the chain of events.
But I do not believe that people, by nature aren’t interested in things. Yes, they are interested in things. It just behooves us as journalists, and as local journalists, to figure out what the interesting angle is on a story or the interesting fact or whatever. I mean, if I as a reporter, am interested in something, why would I think, arrogantly, that my audience wouldn’t be interested in the same thing? You know, they’re, most of them, are probably better educated and smarter than I am. You know, I always say that an editor is nowhere near as smart as his readers.
ROBBINS: I always felt that as a reporter that my editors weren’t very smart. But you until I became— became an editor.
SEIBEL: Exactly. Well, that’s—we’re just accustomed to that. But, you know, I think it’s wrong to think people aren’t interested in these things. And there was, you know, you mentioned the Miami Herald and of course, Miami was kind of low hanging fruit, because everybody was somewhere else. Yeah. But there was a discussion once in our newsroom, twenty years ago I suppose, about why people would be interested in what was going on in the former Yugoslavia. And I always thought it was a strange debate because we were a community made up of Holocaust survivors and political refugees from Cuba. You don’t have to explain to them why a development in Bosnia would be of interest to them. They know. Because those kinds of stories drive a refugee flow, it affects families, you just have to find the human connection there to explain it.
I’ve never really understood why people think newspaper readers aren’t interested in topics that touch other people’s lives. I don’t think we live in isolation and don’t want to know about other people. Or if that’s the case, if we’re only interested in what happened, you know, happened ten yards from our front door, then, you know, we’re pretty limited on what we can cover, as journalists. And I just think, looking at what we do cover is an indication that you can interest people in almost any topic. If you go out and get the anecdotes and the details and tell it in a compelling way.
ROBBINS: So I want to turn it over for questions. I see we already have one question. But you know, when we started this seminar series, and Irina started this and her wonderful group, we had one of the CFR trade experts on and she made a just a wonderful, wonderful point that the reporters could actually go online and find out whether their local hospital had applied for a waiver during the start of the China trade war to import PPE. And that you could see a direct relationship, at the early days of the pandemic and the lack of PPE, to the U.S.-China trade war. And that there was actually a way of documenting it in your local community. I didn’t know that until I heard that. I mean, that’s an extraordinarily cool story. It’s not just a story, which you can anecdotally ask somebody about it, but there was actually a way of documenting it. I was just utterly enchanted with it.
And that opportunity to do a mixture of you know, actually really sort of almost data journalism to track the supply chain from, you know, public policy in Washington or, you know, government policy in Washington, to a trade war to the COVID epidemic was, I mean, that was just a revelatory to me as a wonderful way, because really, that is just a clear link between the global and the local. And it was just and I think there’s just a lot of ways that you can think about a lot of stories like that.
SEIBEL: You know, I always say that every good story begins with a question. And maybe the question in that instance was, why didn’t the hospital have PPE? Or what is the hospital doing about PPE? And then you begin following it out. And then, you know, the federal government has no end of interesting statistics. If you mine it, you find out, you know, maybe you can actually quantify how much how much PPE was being imported, how it was being distributed. Certainly asking for an exemption to tariff is an excellent way of beginning to probe those issues. And you realize, or we ought to realize, as journalists, that those issues are important to people if they want to know why they can’t find a mask and they’re at a hospital. You know, where you can enlighten them.
ROBBINS: Which is really our job because it is an accountability issue all the way up from local all the way up to national to global. So Irina, I’m going to turn it back to you. I have many more questions for Mark, as you know, but I’m sure the group has questions, and we can continue.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you. So we’re going to go to all of you now, you can either raise your hand by clicking at the bottom of your screen, or if you’re on a tablet, clicking the more button on the upper right hand corner. Or you can type your question in the Q&A box, where I see there already two there. When you do, when I do call on you please unmute yourself and say who you are. And if you are typing questions, it would be great if you could also identify yourself there. And I will do my best to fill it in if you haven’t done so.
So the first question comes from Molly Sherman, who is co-editor in chief for the McDaniel Free Press. And she writes how do we invite new writers into journalism to weigh in on big issues? “More eyes and new interpretations,” really stuck out to me, and I wish as an editor of a college paper, we could better tap into the perspectives around us.
SEIBEL: Well, you know, I think first off you have to figure out who’s available to you, and solicit their opinions, and at an academic institution, I think there probably many opportunities where you can, if nothing else, ask one of your professors who he knows or she knows, that’s knowledgeable on a topic. You know, it’s hard for me to say in your particular instance or anybody’s particular instance because I don’t know the community that you’re from, but there are lots of people who are willing to offer their opinions and offer their perspective on events who are quite knowledgeable. And it’s just a question of looking for them and asking them and most of them, I think, will be pleased that you ask.
ROBBINS: I think, Mark, your point about local churches is a very good one as an example, if you want to have different communities and new interpretations from them. In your own community itself, there are different—there are NGOs, there are local, you know, charitable groups or local political action groups, who can, you know, get you stories. They want to get stories out, and they can, you know, introduce you to people who will give you a different perspective. I mean, that’s why, you know, there is a great synergy between these groups. You just have to do your own reporting once they introduce you to the person. You want to make sure that they’re actually, you know, that the story is what the group is telling you it is. But those are, that’s a really great way to do your reporting. These are great lead sources.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go to Lea Kopke, who has her hand raised.
Q: Hi, I’m Lea. I’m from The Spectator at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire and its managing editor. And I wanted to ask, do you foresee local or regional newsrooms eventually turning back to a greater focus on international affairs just as the world becomes more interconnected?
SEIBEL: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t really know, to be honest. I think the last decade has been so hobbling financially, that we—and there’s been such an emphasis on local, local, local, as the mantra for coverage, that I’m fearful that at least this current generation of our journalistic leadership just isn’t thinking in those terms. They more and more—and with the internet, I am concerned about this too—more and more you can count on two or four fingers, the financially successful print operations certainly. And that’s the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. And everybody else is really in trouble. Now, that leaves out broadcast journalism, but here again, you’re talking about two or three network sources. In the internet world, even things like BuzzFeed, which everybody was expecting to continue to go like gangbusters. They faced financial, tough financial decisions to make. So that whole economic issue I think is going to prevent people from thinking very imaginatively about how do we bring the world back to our local communities. I think that’s a challenge. I’m not particularly an optimist about it.
FASKIANOS: I’m gonna take the next question from Leila Franklin, who’s the business manager and staff contributor at The Vanguard at Community College of Philadelphia. How would you handle a hostile or uncooperative interviewee? And I’m going to tack on to that. How do you deal with emails and calls from your constituents who say that the information in your story may be not true?
SEIBEL: Well, you know, a hostile interview subject. I mean, first off, how hostile are they? You’re talking to them so you might be able to learn something from their hostility. And, you know, I’d say, you know, you just keep asking questions, you have to. If you got them, gotten them to sit down and talk to you then at least they are interested in getting their view across. And as long as they don’t become violent, I think you’re probably in a good place there. On the question of being told that something is wrong in your story. You know, I think, I think two things about that. First off, it’s possibly true. You know, we do make mistakes. And I think you have to always be open to making mistakes. And you can’t dismiss somebody’s suggestion that something is untrue. I think you have to check it out. That doesn’t mean they’re right, either. But you remain open that you don’t know everything about everything.
And, you know, I’d also say that, and this is something that’s difficult in the era of Twitter and internet connectivity and whatnot, that you also have to be a little bit courageous to not be swayed by the sheer number of complaints you get about a story. You’re going to get a lot of complaints. And the unfortunate thing, I think, development of the internet world is that it’s possible to flood your boss’s email with complaints. And your boss might well be swayed by—oh my god, there’s a landslide of opinion about this particular thing. You know, back in the, in the olden days, those missives arrived in capital letters on old yellow legal pads, and people just threw them away. And now the sheer number of complaints you might get, or it might be very public on Twitter. I mean, that requires some courage to have some conviction that you’ve checked everything out, of course, means you ought to check everything out. So that if some factor, some perspective, or something is going to be challenged, that you’re able to offer a response.
ROBBINS: Can I take on—
FASKIANOS: Yes, please do.
ROBBINS: When you’re dealing with officials, which is a particular subset of hostile interviews, you have to be, you always have to sort of figure out what the motivation is for anyone who talks to you, whether they’re hostile or they’re friendly. People talk to reporters for reasons, you know, people want to get their stories out for reasons. And there is, you know, there’s a relationship there. And that—and it’s very rarely based on friendship. It’s not because they like you.
And so, you know, when you’re dealing with officials, whether it’s your, you know, county clerk all the way up to the president of the United States, they’re gonna tell you things, because they want you to write it the way they’re spinning it. Or they’re gonna say to you, “oh, please don’t publish this,” because it’s going to destroy someone’s life, it’s going to get somebody killed, it’s going to, you know, it’s whatever it is, you need to listen to that. But you also have to separate out—do they not want me to write this because it’s wrong, because it’s actually going to jeopardize something or, you know, genuinely jeopardize somebody’s life? Or is it just going to be embarrassing to them?
You really always have to be, you have to have a very, you have to be able to pull yourself back and sort of watch that interview going places. And you got to be sitting outside of the room and watching it happen at the same time and saying, what’s the dynamic here? What are they trying to get out of it? And make sure that you know, you’re not being used, but you’re also being accurate as possible as well. You have to be very careful about the dynamic that’s going on there and not worry about the hostility because you have to sort of have a critical view of it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. So there’s a question from Samuel Rowland, who is the science section co-editor at the Stony Brook Press, who wanted to know where you can find the federal government statistics? And I believe he’s referring to what you mentioned, Carla. The call that we had with Jennifer Hillman—
ROBBINS: I will find that and I certainly hope I’m right about the way. Actually it was a year ago. I’m old but I’m pretty sure that’s what you—Irina, you do remember that conversation. We’ll find that we will find that. More generally, how do you find federal statistics? You know, there’s an infinite number of places you can go and do this. There’s, you know, there’s the GAO, there’s the Congressional Research Service, you know, every, you know, there’s all sorts of requirements for transparency and accountability for every executive branch, as well. As there should be.
One of the things we saw with COVID, that was so fascinating was that, you know, each state was sort of playing around with its with its numbers on deaths and all that, you know, the CDC was dragging its feet on it. It’s gonna be very interesting to see how the Biden administration deals with much more transparency and accountability on a whole bunch of stuff. But there’s lots of places to find numbers, but we will specifically look at that trade stuff. And I hope, I certainly hope that I remember that correctly, because I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.
FASKIANOS: You did, Carla. It’s on the ustr.gov site. And there’s an overall list, it gives you the entire index of everybody who’s applied to get one of these tariff exemptions, and you can look at the argument. But we will send that, we’ll send it out to you. You did recall it correctly. Alright, so I’m going to go next to—
SEIBEL: Irina, just let me say—
SEIBEL:—like one other point here on this. Do not forget that almost every interest has a group that comes with it. Probably a, well, a Council on Foreign Relations, that are great people who you can ask. They have expertise, and they can point you to those sources. So don’t forget. I mean, there’s a semiconductor association. There’s a automotive manufacturers, there’s the American Petroleum Institute, you know, and you understand each of their political causes and positions. But they also do know where those statistics and if that information lies, and can be useful in helping you.
FASKIANOS: Yes, and we have seventy scholars at the Council, and we are nonpartisan, so we don’t take institutional positions. So you will get fact-based information from us. I’m going to go next to a raised hand. To, let’s see, Bill, Bill O’Brien, who’s the editor of the Collegian at LaSalle University. And if you can unmute yourself, that would be great.
Q: Hi, can you hear me?
Q: Okay, awesome. Yeah, so my name is Bill O’Brien. I’m the editor of the finance section at the Collegian. But I’m also here with our editor-in-chief and she’s here as well, Bianca Abbate. The Collegian is a newspaper at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. And we’re both appreciative being here. But my question was actually, so where do you see like podcasts and video journalism, fitting into the local news landscape? And do you see it as an answer to kind of the struggles that you mentioned, that local news outlets are facing in the world today?
SEIBEL: Well, you know, I think podcasts that’s clearly something that’s taking off, or has taken off. Everybody listens to them. There are a million of them out there. I do not know, from a financial standpoint, how local podcasts do. But I would have no doubt that, you know, an interesting podcast is an interesting podcast. And it’s a great way to tell a story, which is why they’re proliferating. So I, you know, that’s, I think, in the search for local news outlets, it’s clear that we have moved beyond the local newspaper age, you know. The thing that worries me is that I don’t think the finances are such that internet necessarily will pay for robust local coverage. There’s got to be a better way to fund it. I don’t know what that is. If I did, I would be doing something else. But, you know, I do think podcasts are going to be important to the local news ecosystem.
And, you know, I mean, the way the Washington Post operates, and I guess most newspapers now, you know, in addition to putting out text, which we put out volumes of, we also put out pretty good video coverage of issues. In fact, we have a video forensics team that is very, very good at collecting video and parsing it, you know.
When—to pick something from twenty-one years ago, the Elián Gonzales immigration raid, we had to work really hard to get video of that raid so we could parse it in slow motion to understand what actually took place there. Now you would have a wide variety of video that you could parse. And when we did this particular look at the what happened in the immigration raid. And I don’t know how many of you are familiar with it. But basically, the immigration folks showed up at this little house in Miami, and stormed it. And they were met by a crowd of local residents who tried to resist. And we were curious who the residents were, what actually took place, how it had developed. And we had to go to each television station and ask them for their outtakes so that we could then run them through, you know, slow motion looks to, to see what actually happened in those three minutes. And slow it down for our audience to such a point that they could understand that.
Well, those kinds of stories still exist. And certainly the Post, for example, did a really interesting dissection of the U.S. Capitol riots. But instead of having to go to two or three television stations for their outtakes, they had thousands of views of that, that had been posted on social media. And so you know, there’s real opportunity, I think, for that kind of investigative journalism and explanatory journalism to be done with the video resources that we have today. And of course, editing video is much simpler than it used to be.
ROBBINS: Anyway, it’s interesting. And I wanted to ask you a question that follows on that, which is, when you were asked about the future of local coverage of foreign news. If local news organizations can’t afford the way they could, in the 80s, to have foreign bureaus, but at the same time, there are so many stories that are relevant, can people sit, you know, in the United States using all the communication tools that exist right now and report? Or do you really have to be on the ground to feel like you’re doing a truly honest job?
SEIBEL: Well, as we were talking about, earlier, in these COVID years, we’ve learned that you don’t really have to be present, to do good reporting. And I think that’s even more true now internationally. Because, you know, there’s an old joke that as a foreign correspondent, all you really had to do, especially if you were say in London, is wait for the morning newspapers to come out and recapitulate them for your audience back home, because they won’t have seen them. But we can all read everything, everywhere now. And, you know, I routinely, every morning, read the Financial Times, and the Times of London and a whole bunch of local newspapers, the Dallas Morning News and the San Jose Mercury and, you know, just endless, endless things.
And if I’m interested in an event that’s happening in Latin America, I don’t go to the New York Times, I call up the local newspapers website and I read that, assuming it’s in a language I’m comfortable with. That’s, I think that’s one of the great pluses of the internet world we live in, that you don’t, you’re not reliant just on whatever person is there, you can read what the local population is consuming about it, as well. How you then fill that out is perhaps a bit of a challenge. But, you know, communications costs have dropped so much. You’ve got Skype and you got WhatsApp. There are just an uncounted number of ways that you can reach out to find people to expand on that. So no, I don’t believe—local organizations that are interested in covering these international events—I don’t believe that it’s cost prohibitive for them to do it. They just need to have a little bit of imagination and some interest.
FASKIANOS: The next question comes from Georgia Valdes, managing editor for the Poly Post at Cal Poly Pomona, excuse me, how does one compartmentalize feelings? Not biases, but rather genuine grief or anger when covering global and local tragedies? Are there tricks? Or is there a formula to mitigating or managing personal impact?
SEIBEL: Well, this has been in the last several years a big issue, because for a long time, reporters were just thought of as not affected by what they did. And now, people have realized that reporters can suffer from PTSD, just like any other participant in a horrific event. And you look—I look back at things that I did as a reporter and I think what a crazy thing that you got involved in there, you know. Whether it was counting the number of headless bodies at a plane crash in Mexico City or wandering through some bombed out town in El Salvador, and not even thinking about the fact that I was at danger myself. And those are issues that are highlighted more now. The Overseas Press Club, for example, has a whole committee that considers this. So you know, I don’t know.
Looking back at my own experience, I guess I probably engaged in some suppression, repression of those experiences. Every once in a while I remember, you know, those stacked bodies at the Mexico City Airport, and I think, wow, I really saw that, you know. Or when Archbishop Romero was killed in El Salvador, I think I’m the only American journalist that actually saw his body afterwards. And, you know, it, I think you repress it. And it maybe comes back at some other time. But there are lots of people now in the journalism world that study this and are concerned about it. Because I’m trying to think of what’s the—Dart, I guess it’s the Dart Institute that has major research on the PTSD that journalists suffer from their jobs. You know, I don’t—I think the way I would answer that question is you have to be aware, it’s a possibility. And if something’s disturbing to you, you seek help.
FASKIANOS: So to Brandon Kattou, who is a student at Stony Brook University asks, what are some reliable methods of fact checking in today’s world? I guess that goes back to this, the misinformation and disinformation.
SEIBEL: Well believe nothing you find on the internet. That’s what I would say.
SEIBEL: Seek out your own sources on it. And just because something’s written in some format, or even a video, doesn’t mean it actually happened that way. So it’s, there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of reporting, you have to do on those things. You know, people have gotten more and more comfortable with Wikipedia. But as you know, Wikipedia is edited by a lot of people, the identities of which we don’t know. So I would just say, you have to be skeptical. Have to always be skeptical. And look for reliable sources.
FASKIANOS: And the balance between printing or reporting the story before checking? You know, there’s been a lot of rush to get to be the first one to print it or to announce the news and then have to roll it back because, you know, checked on it and found out some pieces were not true. What’s the balance there?
SEIBEL: Well, I think the way I look at it is—and I think of myself as a digital first journalists, so I do like to be first on things. I like to post quickly when we’ve learned something. But the way I balanced that, is that in that first take, I try to make sure we’re only reporting that which we know. And then we’re going to build out. One of the other great things about the internet is you post three paragraphs, well, that can become thirty paragraphs. You have time to report at that point you get credit for having gotten the basic information up first. And then you get to flush it out. I’m always hopeful that we don’t discover in the flushing it out that the lead paragraph was wrong. But here again, that’s trying to always be aware that you don’t want to report something you don’t know. Or that you haven’t confirmed. That’s hard. I think it’s violated a lot on the internet. People move too quickly.
I’m trying to remember there was a story the other day, the other week now I think, everybody reported it. And it turned out not to be true. And you wonder how is that possible that all these news outlets went with the same supposed fact, that turned out not to be the case. And part of that is that we just relied on one source. And it turned out not to be accurate. But you know, that’s a good thing to be cautious. I do think in that in the current era, where we’re all competing with one another for people’s eyeballs on the web. And for Google to search for our story or to find our story in the search. That you want to be first. Being first, you know, thirty seconds can be the difference between nobody reading your story and 30,000 people reading your story. So that’s a real thing to be worried about. But, you know, if you make mistakes, too often, people will not click on your stories either. So you just limit yourself in that first go to the stuff you really know. And then you build it out later.
FASKIANOS: Great. So we have two questions in the chat that are related. From Molly Sherman, again at McDaniel College and Emmanuel Tamrat the senior online editor of the Middlebury Campus at Middlebury College. So Molly asks, in an era which many considered to be crisis of truth, how do we enhance our credibility as journalists, new source entities, and in individual articles? And Emmanuel piggybacks on that. How can we reduce barriers to entering journalism that writers from more marginalized backgrounds may face? You know, it seems that people with important perspectives or say diverse perspectives are often absent in the newsroom, which often also influences what we choose to report on.
SEIBEL: Well, those are both difficult questions. I think, in terms of the question about marginalized voices, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to recognize that there may be perspectives that you’re not aware of, or sources that are getting less attention. And I think that is a conscious effort you have to make to say: who hasn’t been spoken to on this subject, who may have an opinion that’s worth reporting, or an experience or a perspective. That is something you have to do deliberately, with every story, your editor should help you with that. You should help reporters, who are reporting to you, with that. And it should just be part of your conscious thought process, as you look at a story is: who are we not talking to who has a dog in this fight? And that’s it.
And also, you know, not playing necessarily to what you perceive the interests of your audience to be. And this goes back to something I was saying earlier. I think readers are smart people, or viewers, for that matter, they’re smart people. And they will be intrigued, interested, open to a perspective that perhaps is different from theirs as long as you present it in an open and thoughtful way. You know, I just I have to believe that. I would despair at the career path I took, you know.
FASKIANOS: Next question comes from Jake Procino, news editor of the Collegian from Willamette University in Oregon. How much cultural competency does reporter need to have before reporting on a foreign country?
ROBBINS: Good question.
SEIBEL: Oh, that’s an excellent question. Carla, you want to start there? You know, I think if you’re not culturally aware, you might commit mistakes. Of course, you know, all of us grow, I think as we are exposed to something. So you become more culturally aware than you were yesterday. And, you know, if you’re going to a foreign place to report something, or you’re going to report something about a foreign place, it is always good to read and inform yourself before you start.
And I always encourage people to read everything they can. And that’s something you know—I mean, I’m not kidding, somebody asked me one day, how many online publications I subscribed to and read. And I was amazed at the list of the number of subscriptions I pay for. And you just, you have to read, you have to read all the time. And it doesn’t matter if your medium is digital, or print, or video, or whatever it is. You need to read. And if you’re not interested in reading about these places, well, then you need to find another line of work. You know, you just—that’s how you know about these things.
And it makes you aware, and then when you’re talking to people. You have to always be open to the idea that, oh, I’ve just learned something I didn’t know about this country, or this culture, or that sort of thing. I mean, I remember going back to Armenia and central California, I was working for the San Jose Mercury, you know, before any of you were born. And we had a governor named George Deukmejian. And all of a sudden—Deukmejian is a that’s an Armenian name, I didn’t know that, but it was an Armenian name—and then I started looking at who he was appointing, and their names all ended in -ian. And I thought, what is this all about? And then you realize. I became culturally aware that there’s a big community of Armenians in California, who are very cohesive. And they’ve been there for decades, since the 30s. And they follow their community very, very closely. Well, you know, that’s the kind of information you have to be aware of, you know. And it’s a realization. And it was a realization that allowed me to become more sensitive to what some of the issues are, that my readers were interested.
ROBBINS: I think listening is essential. I mean, I think listening is essential. And I will tell you the moment—of my great epiphany moment, was I talking to market women in Managua, Nicaragua. And, you know, I used to sort of have my routine you ask people, you interview them: How many children do you have? You know, all these other things. And, I asked—thinking back on it, it was an interesting question to ask women—how old are you? This one woman looked at me. And she told me her age and she was probably fifteen years younger than I was. And she looked ten years older than I did. And she turned around, she looked at me, she said, how old are you? After she told me her age. And I had this moment in which I thought to myself, I really, really want to lie about how old I am. Because of the contrast, because you know, I had so much of an easier life than she did. And you could tell it by looking at my face versus her face. And I learned so much at that moment about her life and so much about being this sense of—didn’t mean that I shouldn’t ask the question.
But I spent a lot more time listening after that to these women, a lot more time realizing that I wasn’t just going for the story, the story that I was looking for. I was learning a lot more about them. And it was—I still think about that incredible moment when she turned and looked at me with this incredible clarity in her eyes. And she said to me, and how old are you? So listening is just absolutely essential. The only thing—we were running out of time—the only other thing is that I would really say is that is it readings absolutely essential, And studying is absolutely essential, is that learning about journalism is really important. But you really want you want to have languages. You want to understand economics. You want to understand world history. You want to understand politics. Every time I’ve hired people, I don’t know about you Mark, but I want to know that you can meet deadline, and that you can write a coherent sentence. But I also want to know that you know about stuff. I don’t really care that it’s necessarily that particular thing. You know, it’d be great if you knew about that particular thing I want to hire for this week. But if you really know about stuff, it shows you that you can learn about other stuff. And that to me is really, really important.
SEIBEL: Yeah, one of the questions I always ask a job candidate is, what do you read? And I’m interested primarily in what they read on a daily basis. But it’s something that I think’s incredibly important. It—I want people who are curious and interested in a wide range of topics. Because especially, you know, as a reporter, you’re going to find yourself covering all kinds of things that you didn’t think you were going to be covering. And having at least a passing knowledge of what’s going on there is important.
FASKIANOS: So I’m going to basically—if one of the students who is on this webinar applies for a job with you, I’m going to give them a lead. So when you are listening to the responses, what publications, outlets are you interested in knowing that they read? Or would you recommend that they put on their list on a daily basis? Or the histories? Or?
SEIBEL: Yeah, I think that in my particular experience, if you’re really a serious reporter, looking at foreign policy issues, for example, I hope you’re reading the New York Times. I would like to think that you occasionally pick up Foreign Affairs. I’m always impressed if I discover that somebody reads a foreign publication, whether it’s the Times of London or the BBC website, or, you know that somebody has built that into their daily life. And, you know, it’s—I don’t—I’m not restrictive of which publications I want people to read. But if I get somebody who says, I don’t really read anything or sometimes I pick up, you know, the Wall Street Journal or something. You know, if they’re not habitual readers, that’s a red flag to me. And there’s so much you can read these days, so much you can read for free for that matter. You know, BuzzFeed News has some very interesting coverage. And I think, frankly, as a person who worked there, it’s a very credible organization that’s gotten way past it’s listicle time.
ROBBINS: Extraordinary work on disinformation.
SEIBEL: Yeah. And, you know, so I am not prescriptive of what publications you have to read. But you do have to read.
FASKIANOS: Well we’ve gone a little bit over. I’m sorry, we couldn’t get to the remaining questions in the chat and raised hands. But we’ll just have to have you back. So Mark Seibel, Carla Anne Robbins, thank you very much. And thank you Mark for referencing Foreign Affairs magazine, which we publish. We did not line that up that was completely independent. But for all of you, we do have a student discount rate for—to Foreign Affairs. So you can follow Carla on Twitter @RobinsCarla, and Mark @MarkSeibel. And just please come to cfr.org and Foreignaffairs.com for context, background, and analysis of international trends and events and how they’re they are affecting the United States. Please email us with your feedback and suggestions to [email protected]. And thank you both again.