The Buzz

The Value of Being There

Following a New York Times Magazine article about the challenges of conducting diplomacy while under security threat, the Times’ Bill Keller has expanded the conversation to similar tensions faced by journalists.

The death toll for journalists in dangerous situations is high—the Committee to Protect Journalists counts 956 since 1992. Keller notes that the Times is “running out of [meeting] rooms” to name after its fallen correspondents. Just like in diplomacy, a risk-averse culture has developed at some media outlets, leading to lower-quality coverage by reporters unable to move about freely and independently. Combined with newspapers’ shrinking revenues and “a wrongheaded belief that Americans don’t care that much about foreign news,” Keller sees a major shift in the media’s presence abroad—as of 2010,

Eighteen American newspapers and two entire newspaper chains had closed every one of their overseas bureaus. Other news outlets, including most TV networks, have downsized or abandoned full-time bureaus in favor of reporters or anchors who parachute in when there’s a crisis. They give us spurts of coverage when an Arab Spring breaks out or Hamas fires rockets into Israel, but much less of the ongoing attention that would equip us to see crises coming and understand them when they erupt.

This, says Keller, leads to mistakes as stories are written by reporters who aren’t even in the same country. Journalists for major publications writing from Cairo, Washington, and New York reported (as the U.S. government would) that the Benghazi consulate attack was carried out by a mob angered by the Muhammad video, only to be corrected later by journalists who were actually there.

A similar phenomenon occurred during the 2009 Iranian presidential-election protests. Thanks to better Internet and English skills, America heard more from the opposition than from others. This was a product of Iran’s postfeudal society, where class and political views are often entwined—the urbane upper and middle classes that had always loathed Ahmadinejad were also the ones learning English and tweeting. The result was an incredible torrent of anti-government coverage; the media at the time were concerned with sorting through it all, checking facts, and making sure everybody knew what a whole lot of tweets were tweeted. They did not seem aware—as anyone familiar with Iranian society should be—that the tweets were never going to be a cross-section of Iranian opinion. The result was an impression that the regime was being fought by the overwhelming majority of its people. The truth was far more complex.

More journalists on the ground—especially journalists with a deep familiarity with Iranian society—could have led to a fuller picture. However, the regime was heavily restricting Western journalists' access, and those with Iranian citizenship (even if they were dual citizens of Western countries) faced arrest and torture. The media didn't turn to Twitter because it was lazy (well, not entirely because it was lazy) but because many other options had been eliminated.

Keller is quite right that journalism needs to be wary of choosing safety over access, and his call for journalists on the scene—not staffers half a world away—to make final decisions about risk is sensible. But a fundamental question still remains: how can governments too repressive or badlands too unstable for safe access be covered accurately and comprehensively?