Thursday, November 4, 2010

More thoughts on news from abroad

Martin Moore's study, Shrinking world: the decline of international reporting in the British press, has rightly received a fair amount of attention (examples here and here and here). And there are many others. Plus, he wrote a goodly piece in Monday's print section.

I am sure the commenters are sincere in their appreciation of the study. But we need to exercise caution because they are journalists lamenting the state of journalism. So they are parti pris.

I have no quarrel with the study itself, though I do consider it misses one significant point by choosing 1979 as its starting point. The amount of space given to international news was in decline well before that.

As I argue in my London Evening Standard column today, the missing key factor is the final collapse of the British Empire.

Nearly all the foreign news in British papers before, say, 1960 was about incidents, usually violent, involving the colonies.

I largely agree with the validity of most of Moore's other explanations for the falling away of international reporting: stretched editorial budgets, the termination of the cold war, the growth of 24-hour news broadcasting, the rise of the internet, and the globalisation process that merges foreign and home stories, particularly in business coverage.

But I'm altogether less taken with his claim of a lack of editorial confidence. It has much more to do with a lack of readers' interest.

Editors cannot afford to devote precious space to stories that do not engage their audiences. And they are more aware than ever - due to website monitoring - what does and does not gain readers' attentions.

I wish it were different. I would hope that many more people were interested in what was happening in countries across the globe.

I often reflect on the fact that the British people travel abroad more than than did when the papers carried a great deal of foreign news. Yet they show scant desire to read about the politics of the countries they visit.

Then again, an exhaustive empirical study of British newspapers' foreign content from, say, 1945 onwards would surely show that there have been many under-reported countries (not to mention the whole of South America).

Similarly, given the Anglophone bias in foreign reporting, which papers had written anything about Rwanda before the 1990 civil war?

Then again, if papers had carried anything, would readers have appreciated the stories?

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