from Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary Event

’No Easy Fix’ to the State of Foreign Reporting

As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Current fellow Kim Barker discusses her preference for covering "how people live, not just how they die." Barker also comments on the future of foreign reporting pointing out that sustaining it is not going to be cheap. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

September 8, 2009

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

As part of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Current fellow Kim Barker discusses her preference for covering "how people live, not just how they die." Barker also comments on the future of foreign reporting pointing out that sustaining it is not going to be cheap. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

I like to write about how people live, not just how they die. After I was sent to cover Afghanistan in June 2004, I noticed a tear in the culture, small at first, but then bigger and bigger. Teenage boys in jeans, young women who let their scarves slip off their heads, taxi drivers who blared hip-hop music, an Afghan version of "American Idol," even a kind of "Hipster Eye for the Traditional Afghan Guy." I wrote a lot about these changes, because I felt they showed the identity crisis that Afghanistan still continues to suffer. I followed young teenage girls, some of whom were kept home from school by the Taliban, as they became foreign-exchange students in America and then returned home to face harsh criticism for plucking their eyebrows or acting too Western. I wrote about the conflict over alcohol in this Islamic country that banned alcohol, yet allowed stores to sell black-market Heineken on street corners and free-flowing booze at restaurants catering only to Westerners. I wrote about how a Muslim man was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. These were stories of a culture crisis, but they had real implications. The backlash to the influence of the West in Afghanistan has fueled an anti-Western sentiment and helped drum up support for the Taliban, pushing a return to Afghanistan’s traditional values. Because of this, the Afghan government has pulled more to the right, refusing to intervene in the recent case of a college student sentenced to 20 years for printing out an Internet article on women’s rights in Islam.

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This cultural push-and-pull has created a dilemma for Afghanistan’s government and the international community, over what kind of country Afghanistan wants to be and whether this is the country the West wants to be fighting for.

Is there another story or topic, perhaps one that is not already widely cited, that comes to mind (yours or someone else) that you believe has had a significant impact. This can be a story reported by you or someone else. Tell us about it.

The issue of rule of law has become crucial to the future of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, thousands of crusading lawyers marched on the streets in 2007 and helped reinstate the chief justice fired by then President Pervez Musharraf. The lawyers’ movement eventually pushed Musharraf into declaring emergency rule, firing all the country’s top justices and stepping down as army chief. In parliamentary elections in early 2008, Pakistanis threw out Musharraf’s party and handed a surprise amount of support to the major political party defending the chief justice. Eventually, the lawyers’ movement helped push out Musharraf and forced his replacement, Asif Ali Zardari, to reinstate the chief justice. The fact that the U.S. initially steered clear of this movement and avoided stepping in cost the U.S. tremendously in Pakistan. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the lack of rule of law and extreme corruption of the government have created distance between average Afghans and the government and its international supporters. Warlords seize land with impunity; drug traffickers buy their way out of prison. Anything goes, as long as you have money or guns. The issue of rule of law can seem tedious-my editors grew tired of all my stories about the lawyers-and they’re not necessarily breaking news stories or always covered by the wires.

But the lack of justice in both countries is a major reason many Afghans and Pakistanis turn toward the Taliban, seen as capable of delivering a fair if harsh ruling. Until the West understands how important rule of law and functioning legal systems are in South Asia, more and more people will continue to feel disenfranchised and disenchanted by both governments and the countries that support them.

And that disenfranchisement leads people to turn somewhere else.

Do you have any ideas--whether yours or someone else’s--for how the news industry can sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media?

I always tried to write different stories, in an attempt to separate what the Tribune produced from the monolithic wires. But that kind of international coverage costs money--a lot of money. There’s no getting around that, no easy fix. Right now, the trend seems to be that news outlets are cutting staff coverage overseas to rely on wires. Or they use freelancers, many of whom are young and relatively inexperienced, some of whom are experienced and recently laid off and hired for cheap. The perils of this model are obvious-the news reported may be superficial, and the stringers may put themselves in danger to sell a great story. The expectation seems to be that journalists work for corporations simply for love of journalism, not for money. So what’s the solution? Clearly, if we want to have serious international reporting, and varied stories, someone is going to have to pay, and I fear that someone will no longer be newspapers. Online is the future, and as with the rest of the news, no news organization has yet figured out how to make money from the internet, not from local news, let alone foreign news. Globalpost.com is an interesting experiment, but again, its rate per story hardly justifies the cost of getting out of bed in the morning. I fear that international reporting will need a benefactor-a Google owner, a George Soros, a Poynter Institute-that will pay for stories and for journalists because what we do is important, and more voices are needed, not fewer ones.

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If not a benefactor or a kind of non-profit model, foreign news will need to depend on micropayments, just like local news in the future.

Failing that, we will be left with a depleted number of journalists overseas and fewer voices.

 

 

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