“The bureau is a beautiful old Kabul house with a beautiful green lawn. However, that old house is only for the foreign journalists,” says Ali M. Latifi, an Afghan-American journalist living in Kabul, about the New York Times bureau in the city. “They work and live there. The local staff work in a small little side house, traditionally used for the household servants, behind some trees and hidden from view. They literally segregate their local and foreign staff. I don’t think it gets any more obvious than that.”
Latifi, who reports for the Los Angeles Times, recently called for fundamental changes to international news media in his article published here at Media Diversified, “No news is foreign: the future of the foreign desk”. He spoke of issues related to ownership and representation that have been compromised in the way international news is reported in the developed world:
Over the last five years I have seen young Afghan journalists – male and female – travel across the provinces to interview everyone from high-level officials and local strongmen to “ordinary” people leading lives… only to have their names appear at the bottom of a story as having “contributed to” the reporting.
Given the response to Latifi’s original piece, it is vital to continue the conversation, including reaching out to all journalists to highlight the need for reform of foreign news reporting, as well as to explore how best to advocate for the changes needed.
As foreign bureaus continue to decrease and downsize across the world, it is time to change the way international news is reported – not only to respond to inevitable budgetary pressure, but also to benefit the coverage of news itself.
Foreign news is broken
Aside from the financial pressure on overseas bureaus, there are fundamental problems with the way “foreign” news is gathered and reported. A particular concern is the way local English-speaking journalists are not being given the recognition they deserve. They will also have their stories altered without notice. Latifi says this has happened to him numerous times throughout his career. Once, in Doha, he was working on a story about the legacy of Ahmad Shah Massoud for the anniversary of his death for Al-Jazeera English (AJE). He didn’t hear back from his editors after submitting the story, so he checked his Twitter feed and saw that AJE had published it without confirming editorial changes to the copy or sending any comment on the original. When he confronted his editor, they didn’t see the issue at hand. “All he said was, ‘Did you make any mistakes?’ but that wasn’t the point. The point was that I was the one who wrote it, who was in Kabul as an Afghan Pashtun during the anniversary of Massoud’s death with a potentially controversial story being published that I had no input over the final draft of,” says Latifi.
The other fundamental problem for local journalists is even more personal and results in the most galling aspect of the dynamics of foreign bureaus. “You are not considered equal to the foreign reporters,” observes former New York Times reporter Abu Taha. Despite doing most of the reporting for stories, at the end of the day, local staff members are just seen as interpreters or fixers. “There have been times where I or another Afghan colleague would do most of the reporting but we would not get any credit for our work. Normally, it would just be a tag line at the bottom of the article,” says Taha. Of course, that is not the experience of all foreign reporters, but it is a common occurrence. Latifi notes that this phenomenon is due to the fact that “journalism is a business driven by ego.”
As Latifi wrote in his earlier piece, this issue is part of a bigger problem about the way foreign news is seen: a white reporter is automatically considered to have credibility and objectivity. This view is simply no longer acceptable. When working with local journalists, it is important that the foreign correspondent treat them as their equal, while valuing and showcasing their efforts and input. This is especially important in international reporting because it finally gives a voice to those who are not usually heard. Years of oppression and colonization have diminished the voices of those that have been on the margins and even with advances made to reverse that, the systemic silencing is still there. Journalists who believe that it is okay to take credit for others’ work are not only breaking their code of ethics, but also further oppressing those that are fighting to be heard.
Latifi’s idea also touches on another issue in foreign bureaus that needs to be addressed: trust. For Taha, the way local communities respond to foreigners given the legacy of colonisation and the deployment of armed security forces is a major impediment to the production of news. “It is not easy to work with foreign reporters. In our society, when people see you with a foreigner, they immediately think of you as a traitor, as someone who is selling the secrets of the country and people,” says Taha.
The implementation of the new approach can help to mitigate this problem. Local staff can report news straight from the source without hesitation or complexities concerning culture. Although it is a journalist’s job to adapt to a current situation and be able to invest in it wholeheartedly, it is not always possible. In places that have a history of conflict, fear and mistrust are a reasonable response to outsiders asking questions. Local staff, who are invested in their communities rather than flying in and out of the country to tackle other stories, will always have a greater understanding of the complexities of their country in a way that a foreign correspondent would not be able to do, even by living there for an extended period of time.
The case for change
It’s time to let those who live and breathe these stories in their day-to-day life, those that are personally impacted by these stories and wholeheartedly know what they mean for their people, to be the voices bringing these stories to the rest of the world.
The status quo may be too entrenched to undergo changes like those suggested by Latifi any time soon, but it is important to continue to highlight the necessity and benefits of revaluating the way things currently operate. The president of NBC News in 1990, Andrew Lack, said that a reason for bureau cuts could be due to the fact that many journalists were not doing much while they were there, “The dirty little secret…was that those people were not very productive. I was at the old CBS Paris bureau and the old CBS London bureau and there were an awful lot of guys sitting around and going to Savile Row and buying fancy-looking suits… There was a noblesse oblige in the bureau system that was a waste of money and bullshit…that level of waste was pulled out of the system.”
This kind of extravagance hopefully no longer happens, but the approach Latifi proposes not only breeds efficiency but also strengthens the journalistic community as a whole. Foreign correspondents coming into places like Kabul can play an important role in training and preparing local staff to be able to write their own byline stories once the correspondents have moved on. This would require the posted journalists to invest in capacity building and mentoring of their local colleagues. A foreign correspondent’s role would be to work on the stories and the people simultaneously: developing local capacity and helping them receive the same recognition that the foreign correspondent does for their work.
“It means taking an active interest in the development of their colleagues who in fact do about 70 per cent of the work required in reporting for stories that the foreign journalist usually gets a byline for,” says Latifi. Although local journalists in Kabul already produce English-written pieces with their own bylines, this type of collaboration would allow these stories to gain the recognition they deserve, allow journalists to realize their potential, and build sustainability through a better model of international news gathering.
Instead of shutting overseas bureaus completely, the obvious solution is to delegate reporting to those that can do it justice without requiring the extensive financial resources that a foreigner in that country would. Unfortunately, it seems the standard approach to cost-cutting is doing the exact opposite, and will have the effect of denying local journalists the opportunities to present more nuanced and contextual insight to news as it happens. At the end of last year, the NPR bureau in Kabul was shut down because they no longer wanted to keep a correspondent there and assigned coverage of the area to Islamabad. This was not necessary, as Latifi says: “They had at least one or two amazing Afghan journalists who could work very well in English and keep the bureau running. In reality, they were the ones doing the majority of the work – travelling, interviewing, translating, arranging the interviews – so they had already proven they were up to the task.”
Human resources and humanisation
As foreign bureaus continue to shut down and the reliance on wire services increases, it has been mentioned that the role of a foreign correspondent might become redundant. Many journalists have even moved onto platforms like social media to aggregate their information and report on issues across borders. This new way of reporting poses many issues with regards to accuracy and representation. Latifi notes the praise for social media’s role in relaying information overpowers the actual story: “The problem is that we are talking about the tools themselves, rather than the human stories those tools are used to convey.” The humanisation of these stories can sometimes get lost due to a lack of witnessing, something that is imperative to international reporting because it adds a sense of reality.
According to Taha, implementing Latifi’s model of allowing local journalists to tell these stories can strengthen reporting while making a huge difference in terms of humanization and context. The growing interconnectedness of the world allows people to see what the media does and does not do with just a few clicks. As people become more aware of what journalists put out, it becomes the journalists’ responsibility to create a human connection to these stories and put faces, voices and context to them.
This new system of foreign reporting can work to bring stronger context and nuance to stories that can sometimes get lost with wire reporting or parachute journalism. As well as benefiting local journalists, improving the accuracy of information, and decreasing budgets, this can also provide, as Latifi notes, “a chance for positive stories to be published, or focused stories that can help explain a phenomenon.” International coverage tends to fall into routines of recycled stories where everyone is saying the same thing with a different logo on it. This usually comes out of the use of wire services, which are intended to supply news outlets with breaking news around the world as it happens. Agencies like the Associated Press and Reuters do their job well in providing information to a multitude of organizations, yet most journalists take this as a free pass to be lazy and skimp on original reporting. Wires are intended to present the basic details for a story, not the entire piece. It is crucial for news organisations to literally have “boots on the ground” and carry out investigations in order to dig deeper and present the full picture.
“A lot of this is much easier to access when you can sit with the people in their house or restaurant without worrying about a translator, security, or offending people by not understanding the local mores,” says Latifi.
The role of foreign correspondents will not be eliminated completely with this idea, but it will be transformed into something that can change the practice of journalism for the better. It is imperative to invest in the people to be able to tell stories so that when budget cuts arise or a place is not of “significance” to the western world anymore, those voices and stories are not lost.
 Sambrook, Richard. “Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant?” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 1 Dec. 2010. pg. 16.
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Ban Ibrahim is an Iraqi-born Canadian who is an aspiring lawyer currently studying journalism with a minor in psychology. Her journalistic passion resides in media, especially filming, editing and producing. www.banibrahim.strikingly.com. Find her on Twitter @Bryersonjourn
This article was edited by Sunili Govinnage
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