By: Joe Strupp
Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor reporter who spent more than 80 days in captivity in Iraq last year before being freed following an international call for her release, is criticizing cutbacks in foreign news coverage in a new report she authored for the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.
Researched and written during her fellowship at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy last fall, Carroll’s 23-page report claims that media companies cutting back on foreign bureaus and correspondents in the face of financial pressure “are making a financial miscalculation and missing an opportunity to capitalize on an asset that they appear to undervalue.”
Carroll, who was kidnapped just over a year ago in Baghdad during an incident in which her driver was killed, followed her release last spring by writing an extensive series on her 82-day ordeal, which also included online video interviews and became the Monitor’s most popular syndicated series and web-based report. She took a leave of absence from the paper during the fall semester at Harvard, where she was one of four such fellows.
Her critical report includes statistics that note the number of foreign correspondents at U.S. newspapers had dropped from 282 in 2000 to 249 in 2006. She also points out that the number of foreign bureaus at the three major networks had “dropped significantly since 9/11. ABC, NBC and CBS all had six foreign bureaus by the summer of 2003, according to American Journalism Review, after ABC and NBC cut seven and CBS cut four bureaus since the 1980’s.
She also notes several reader polls, claiming their findings indicate a healthy appetite among readers and viewers for overseas news.
“Good quality foreign news coverage is in fact in demand by readers and viewers. It adds significant value to a medium but in ways that can’t always be directly measured by net profits,” Carroll writes. “Higher quality employees, greater credibility and exclusive stories are all a result of having one’s own staff providing good quality foreign news coverage. These benefits strengthen the medium as an organization and when factored into a cost-benefit calculation, the costs associated with producing good quality foreign news coverage begin to seem like a bargain.”
When noting companies that have hit hardest in reducing their foreign coverage, Carroll says that “the starkest example is Tribune Company. It is shuttering the Baltimore Sun’s and Newsday’s foreign bureaus and will rely instead on Tribune system reporters overseas. The rationale is that Tribune’s Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune will handle the bureau reporting and that doing this will also eliminate overlap with other papers in the chain.
“But one of the things the Sun and Newsday were particularly well known for was their ambitious foreign coverage. They distinguished themselves from average metro daily newspapers by having their own foreign staff-even if only a handful of correspondents. Their investment in original foreign coverage is often what made them great and not just average. But at small and mid-sized papers the fad solution to the industry’s struggle to maintain 20% profit margins is to focus more on local news.”
Carroll, who is set to return to the Monitor for an as yet undisclosed assignment, ends the report by claiming the foreign coverage element of U.S. news operations should not be allowed to shrink further: “The quality of the information provided by the news media determines to a large extent the quality of the national debate and resulting policies. Having many sources of good quality, in-depth, insightful, well-informed foreign reporting is essential to keeping the national debate vigorous and churning. This moral argument won’t hold sway in many boardrooms, but the financial incentives to produce good quality foreign news should. Hopefully financial decision makers will have the foresight to realize they are drastically undervaluing foreign news coverage and have the wisdom to hang onto and invest in this valuable asset.”