Shrinking World – the reaction

Shrinking World has, since its release last week, prompted and provoked quite a lot of coverage and comment. Here is a brief round-up with links.

Published last Monday (1st November), Shrinking World – which showed that in parts of the British press, foreign coverage had declined by almost 40%, leaving foreign stories accounting for only around a tenth of all stories in the paper – was covered by Josh Halliday at The Guardian, Laura Oliver at (including a podcast), Dominic Ponsford at Press Gazette, Sean Maguire at Reuters, Oliver Willmott at the New Statesman, Emma Heald at Editors Weblog, by Jon Slattery (here and here), Richard Sambrook (whose own report on international news will be published shortly), Deborah Bonello, Charlie Beckett and INFORRM.

We ran a series of posts here on the MST website across the week. On Monday, the director of the MST (and report author) Martin Moore blogged about the inspiration and methodology behind the report. He also wrote a piece summarising the report’s findings for the Media Guardian.

The next blogpost was the foreword to the report, by distinguished foreign correspondent David Loyn. Loyn suggested that the decline had two significant consequences: it ‘reinforces insular values – prejudices – and discourages understanding’ among the British public; and ‘makes those organisations that do still have global news ambitions feel a little lonely and out of step… It would be far easier to justify foreign news spending because of robust competition than for more abstract public service reasons.’

Tuesday saw Harry Edgington, Moscow correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday when the Berlin Wall fell, give a concrete example of the benefits of having a reporter on the ground:

This was the key to gathering information about Soviet actions, knowing through which channels it was moving, behind the scenes. To the untutored eye, these were ‘Soviet silences’. Not so – a lot was always going on.

The points raised by Loyn and Edgington were echoed by Mark Austin over at ITN – ‘Without dedicated reporters on the ground we have nobody we can really trust to bear witness to events and to question what’s happening… As an old cameraman friend used to say: “If you don’t go fishing ,You won’t catch fish.”’

On Wednesday, journalist and academic Suzanne Franks asked ‘What future for the foreign correspondent?’, a question directed particularly at the current crop of journalism students (Suzanne also posted at the BBC College of Journalism).

Thursday brought Turi Munthe – founder and CEO of Demotix, one of the projects mentioned in our report as part of the future foreign news ecology (cross-posted at Demotix and openDemocracy) – and further exploration of the reasons behind the ‘inexorable curiosity-shrink’, our appetite for foreign affairs (and Britain’s declining importance in them) competing with the economics of news in the blame game.

And finally, on Friday, freelance foreign correspondent Christine Finn wrote about her experience of covering the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake and being told that the story had ‘moved on’. This might make sense in old media – only anniversaries, new news and ‘pre-emptive strikes’ (the coming rainy season in Haiti’s case) keeping a semblance of coverage going – but what about online, where a core (the main story) and periphery (the micro-news important and of interest to different communities) model could perhaps be served? Does the increasing reliance on agencies, the shift to parachute reporting and unwillingness and inability to invest in ‘long news digging’ present a missed opportunity in the digital age?

Commentary elsewhere discussed whether decline should be attributed to supply – newspapers no longer covering foreign news – or demand – readers simply not being interested. In a post at Index on Censorship, journalist and academic Brian Cathcart advised editors against ‘counsels of failure’ and the temptation to simply blame the reader: ‘Journalists and editors are supposed to provide some kind of meaningful reflection of the real world: they are not supposed to hide in some cheap, shiny corner of it.’ Incidentally, at a discussion with Cathcart a few weeks earlier, Times foreign editor Richard Beeston had avoided exactly this kind of despairing: he saw his job as making sure people would enjoy foreign stories, packaging important stories in an interesting way.

Roy Greenslade (in the Evening Standard and The Guardian) took a different view. After expanding the report’s point that the decline of the British Empire explains some of the drop in coverage (the mapped retreat of imperial pink leaving it to the pink ‘un and a few others), he asks, ‘have the readers complained?’

I think it would be pushing it to equate present falling sales with people’s concern about a lack of foreign coverage. In truth, I don’t think people care. There is a minority audience for international news, and the serious papers still provide ample coverage. And, for those who do care, the net is an invaluable source of news from everywhere.

In this brave new shrunken world, Greenslade asks, ‘what exactly will we lose?’

Turi Munthe’s blogpost gives one answer. He writes that what we lose

is not just our ability to interpret the world, and negotiate our futures within it at a time when – ever increasingly – the lodestones of global politics and economics shift further and further from our centre… [John Pilger’s ‘Death of a Nation’ report on Cambodia’s killing fields, Daily Mirror, September 1979] told more than a story about the Khmer Rouge of course. It talked to an understanding of humanity, of ethics, of broader politics and its uses. Without foreign news, and the distance it affords us on ourselves, we are condemned to talk only to each other and only about ourselves within a closed circle.

In a world we think of as increasingly globalised – where, for all the decline in reporting, emergency appeals for Haiti and Pakistan flash across our screens, where all of our lives can be touched by a global economic crisis and where global problems from crime to carbon emissions demand global solutions – we may become increasingly isolated and insular. A lack of foreign news, not knowing what goes on beyond our borders, may prevent us from properly coming to terms with how what happens abroad impacts our daily lives and how this should affect our own political priorities. In this time of global communication, do we live in a global village or a global dormitory town, where we don’t take the opportunities provided to meet our neighbours, involve ourselves in community issues or even care about what goes on around us?

The report isn’t entirely glass half-empty, of course: some newspapers and magazines seem to be finding a commercial advantage in foreign reporting (most obviously The Economist and the Financial Times), innovation in the ‘old media’ ranges from partnerships with other organisations to one-man foreign bureaux, and there are ‘citizen journalism’ websites taking advantage of modern technology and the information which it makes available. But Shrinking World isn’t the eternal optimist either – it doesn’t assume that  there’s no need to worry about the glass half-empty, safe in the knowledge that someone else has headed to the bar for a new round of international news. They haven’t.

As Martin Moore writes in the report, Shrinking World ‘is not intended as a comprehensive study’. It was intended to put the decline of international news on a quantitative footing and spark debate on the future of foreign reporting. Judging by the reaction over the last week, it has started to do that – but let’s hope the debate keeps expanding, not shrinking.