Guest Post: Foreign Based Reporters in America are an Underutilized Public Diplomacy Resource

By Mitchell Polman

According to a report released earlier this year by the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism, 1,490 foreign correspondents were accredited to the Foreign Press Center in Washington as of October 2008. That is an almost ten-fold increase since 1968. Foreign accredited journalists represent nearly 800 media outlets from 113 countries and territories. Journalists from Africa, the Middle East, and China account for much of the increase. From a public diplomacy standpoint, the foreign journalists working in Washington are underutilized. The State Department needs to work on developing ways to bolster the ability of foreign journalists to get the most out of their U.S. experience.

The State Department, to its credit, does operate press centers in Washington and New York that assist foreign journalists with briefings, information, and other tools that enable them to keep track of policy debates and develop contacts. The Bush administration closed a third Foreign Press Center that was in Los Angeles.

Getting information, however, is not the biggest problem that foreign journalists face. In conversations that I’ve had with many foreign reporters I have learned that the single biggest difficulty that a foreign reporter based in the U.S. has is financial. The cost of living in Washington is exorbitant for journalists that come from poor countries. Many foreign journalists spend time working odd jobs when they’d prefer to be reporting or learning about America. This presents other problems as journalists who come to the U.S. on the special "I" visas that they need to work here are in a legal limbo when it comes to taking other employment. I have spoken with expert immigration lawyers who have told me that they honestly can’t say if a journalist who has an "I" visa can work legally in a job that is unrelated to journalism. The "I" visa system was simply not designed with journalists from Third World countries in mind.

The financial obstacles also impacts foreign reporting on America because it greatly limits what reporters can cover. It’s not that difficult for foreign journalists to cover Washington policy debates regarding their country or region of origin. It is also easy to cover the visit of an important dignitary from the home country. However, when it comes to reporting on "the real America" — its people, its lifestyle, and its culture — then the financial obstacles kick in. One East European journalist that I talked to told me that the only way he gets to report on American life outside of Washington is if he combines work with a vacation. Journalists from even poorer countries often find the cheapest way to travel to visit friends in other cities, which almost always means New York, and report stories that way. Even foreign journalists that work for large media outlets usually lack the ability to hire "fixers" to assist them in assembling a story and explaining the cultural nuances that are often involved. The result is that a large share of stories written by journalists from poor countries are focused on the immigrant community from their homeland or on the visiting singer or artistic ensemble from the home country. Those that do focus on American society may be superficial in nature. The result is that their audience gains little understanding and insight into American society.

The State Department does help organize trips outside of Washington during political campaign season, but media outlets are still expected to shoulder the costs. The State Department also pays to bring foreign TV and radio journalists to the U.S. to film documentaries (and in the interest of full disclosure, I have worked on those projects). However, it does not fund similar projects for journalists who are accredited to Washington.

If we want foreign journalists to get the most out of their American experience then the State Department needs to think of what it can do to improve their ability to cover America. Perhaps it can start holding quarterly grant competitions for foreign journalists from TV, radio and print who have story ideas that would take them beyond Washington. The grant can be used to cover travel expenses and hire a producer if need be. We should be encouraging foreign journalists to get out more and providing them with some of the resources that they need to do it.

Realistically speaking, there is little that the State Department can do to close the economic gap between a journalist’s country and the U.S. It can, however, work to clarify the rules of the "I" visa and make it easier for foreign journalists to supplement their income in legal ways. The State Department, of course, can’t be in the business of supplementing a foreign journalists’ salary. It is, however, in our interest to make it possible for them to spend as much time actually working as journalists in America as is feasible.

Finally, our public diplomacy officers overseas should be engaging in a dialogue with editors and media outlets about these topics. At the Columbia University School of Journalism I met a dean who is originally from India. He told me that he had quit reporting on the U.S. because his editors in India always wanted an "India angle" to every story. If it didn’t involve Indians they weren’t interested because they assumed their readers wouldn’t be. He felt that his readers in India were getting an incomplete picture of America as a result. I’ve heard similar complaints from other foreign journalists. Reporting on émigrés and émigré life is important and useful, but enhancing understanding between peoples requires stepping outside the familiar cultural boundaries to report on what the audience may consider different or exotic. Our public diplomacy officers would be doing not just America, but doing the world a service by encouraging journalists to take that approach.

Mitchell Polman is a contractor on public diplomacy programs for the Department of State.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.

[Editor: I have (unsuccessfully) sought funding for a symposium on engaging and empowering non-US media operating both in the US and abroad, primarily in areas of interest to the US. The topics include how (and if) the US Government should assist foreign media covering the US (e.g. facilitating access, visas), operating locally abroad (e.g. providing training, tools, and technology), and the impact and utility of “now media”. Mitch has helped me in this effort. –MCA]

6 thoughts on “Guest Post: Foreign Based Reporters in America are an Underutilized Public Diplomacy Resource

  1. Christina: It seems to me that your own perceptions have a distinctly anti-US bias. Did you come by this bias because the U.S. is “less engaged” than you think it should be? If so this runs counter to your stated “Readers are interested in what affects their lives.” There is a huge difference in looking at the world from the perspective of the U.S.–a continental sized country of 300+ million that is still the world’s only super-power and the largest economy in the world and your perspective in Britain. And I don’t state that to put you or Britain down but rather to point out that whatever you may think is desirable, it may not be objectively true or what the “average” American might or should think. Without trying to, you are showing a certain provincialism. Do you imagine that the U.S. would change its foreign policy because you don’t approve of it? If you expect to get grant money you need to be a bit more sophisticated in your approach. Bill

  2. I actually should be clear that there are some foreign media outlets such as Japan’s NHK, Brazil’s Globo, some of the western European networks, and, of course, “The Economist” that do an excellent job of covering U.S. society and life. Undoubtedly, it’s because they don’t much lack for resources. I’m mostly speaking of those media outlets that lack the resources to be sending reporters around the U.S.As for “what sells” — Cristina you are correct up to a point. Foreign media bosses often do perceive the home-country angle as what sells as often the journalists themselves do. Perception, however, doesn’t necessarily match reality. I do believe most people the world over are happy to learn about life in other countries if they are given the opportunity to do so.
    I have an anecdote on this — I once was in Texas with a foreign crew on a State project. My State supervisor suggested that I take the crew to a high school football game in Texas so they could get “B” footage. The journalist and cameraman killed the idea saying nobody in their country would be interested in American football (the need for a shopping trip to Wal-Mart was undoubtedly also a factor). The next day we were in a room where there was a football game on TV. The same cameraman who said nobody in his country would be interested in American football stood there with his mouth agape and asked me, “is THIS American football”? I had to drag him away from the TV.
    In general, it’s difficult to get people to report on something that they are unfamiliar with. When people don’t know America then they don’t know what would be interesting. I think this accounts for much of this gap.
    I would add that there are other more basic problems. One foreign reporter confessed to me that she hates to leave Washington because her English isn’t good and she’s afraid she won’t be able to understand people’s accents.
    I have to disagree though with your comment about “America being more engaged…” There are now millions of people the worldover, including many journalists, who have studied in the U.S. America is in fact very much engaged. I worked with one foreign journalist who studied at an American university who was one of those “home country angle” reporters. He knew more about the U.S. than most people from his country. His bosses just wanted the “home country angle” every time.

  3. Mr. Polman is absolutely right in pointing at the crucial role of foreign correspondents in public diplomacy. The lack of financial resources is definitely a constraint on their newsgathering routines, particularly on their “getting out more” to see the “real America.” In this respect, as he suggests, some grants might help.I not sure, however, about the extent to which encouraging foreign journalists to step outside ‘the familiar cultural boundaries to report on what the audience may consider different or exotic’ can work. Foreign correspondents report about the “home-country angle” not only because they assume that is what their audiences are interested in. The “home angle” is what their audiences are actually interested in. News organizations are commercial in nature. They are not going to start reporting about the “unfamiliar” for the sake of it (American journalists abroad don’t do that either…).
    In a comparative study about what shaped the international coverage of 9/11 in which I compared news from the US, France, Italy and Pakistan, I could conclude that there are other factors shaping news about foreign countries than cultural proximity. Journalists do report about the “unfamiliar” when this is relevant to their audiences’ lives. In the case of 9/11, for example, the French coverage was much more diverse in terms of number and variety of ideas in the news than the American coverage. These ideas came from a greater number of international sources than in the US. Apart from the US, they came from the Middle East, African countries, EU countries, Asia. They reflected the range of countries France is involved with through its multilateral foreign policy. The US coverage (even allowing for the fact that it was the target of the terrorist attacks) was the most inward-looking of all.
    My point is that when journalists do not report about foreign countries the problem is not with the individual journalists (who are not daring enough in their profession), the news organizations (too focused on making profits), or the readers (who just don’t care about foreign policy). News organizations are socially embedded. Their coverage is driven by the perception of what is newsworthy: this is what “sells”, what readers are interested in. Readers are interested in what affects their lives. If the US was more engaged with foreign countries in the first place, its culture, lifestyle, and people would also appear less distant and more relevant.
    Of course any financial aid or any other form of incentive for foreign journalists can help. But don’t blame the journalists, change your foreign policy.
    P.S. I am currently looking for funding for a study of the role of London foreign correspondents in the UK public diplomacy. For more information (and funding offers) please do get in touch:

  4. I work for a large East Asian newspaper at their bureau in DC. While they are in better shape than journalists from third world countries, our biggest problems are two fold: 1) First, during the campaign the Clinton Campaign segregated foreign outlets (including US citizen employees) from American outlet journalists, and kept us from doing our work. 2) Sometimes government agencies limit access to foreign journalists. This is as simple as the Secret Service at the White House requiring an escort for foreign national journalists, and applying this rule haphazardly. The Foreign Press Center us unable to help at all in this manner.D.S., Washington, DC

  5. @ Bill: you sound a bit defensive about the role of the US. I neither have anti-American bias, nor I disapprove of US foreign policy. I just like analyzing communication and trying to understand its dynamics—what works and what does not. I just wanted to highlight the fact—something that is normally overlooked—that what shapes the newsworthiness perceptions of journalists comes from far beyond the newsroom and reaches into the realms of international politics. What I was saying about the US coverage being more inward-looking than that of other countries (including the elite press of Pakistan) is supported by facts (can send you the whole lot of data, if you like). Of course it is not just foreign policy affecting what foreign journalists decide to write about! There are also norms of behaviour within news organizations (some news organizations are definitely interested in the unfamiliar. @Mitchell: I agree, some news organizations ‘want the home angle every time’). Also journalistic cultures affect the sense of newsworthiness of journalists (French journalism, for example, is very different from Anglo-Saxon objectivity-oriented journalism). We can go on with the list of what affects journalistic practices to include news management activities by political actors, the individual educational background of each reporter… This being a blog I wanted to keep my posting to the point. Perhaps I have a bit generalized. Apologies for that. The “Dont’ blame the journalists, change your foreign policy”, however, was just the final punchline and summary of my argument, not a statement of my “disapproval” of US foreign policy (@Bill: perhaps YOU feel that the US policy should be changed?).The anonymous comment by the East Asian journalists confirms the importance of a country’s foreign policy orientation on journalistic practices from a different angle. American foreign policy affects the extent to which political actors in the US engage with foreign journalists: they tend to engage mainly with journalists from countries that are regarded as priorities from the point of view of American strategic interests (this was pointed out also by Stephen Hess, who conducted a study of foreign correspondents in Washington. See his book “Through Their Eyes: Foreign Correspondents in the United States,” 2005, p. 84). And who can blame them? We are all busy and should establish priorities in how we spend our time (which reminds me: why am I still writing here?). Obviously, and unfortunately for him/her, the East Asian country from which the anonymous journalist comes from was not one of the priorities at the time of the presidential election.
    As for me being “provincial”… I hold an Italian citizenship, but was born in Switzerland. I live and work in the UK. I have lived in Germany, Sweden and …the US. My husband is British…

  6. Replying briefly to you, Cristina, we are both in danger of straying from the point that Mitchell was making in his blog. If I seemed defensive, my apologies for giving the wrong impression. The main reason the is so inward looking (and I do agree that it is) is because (1) the readers prefer local news over national and national over international (for the most part) and (2) a continent-sized country without many neighbors, long isolated by two oceans, militarily powerful and economically secure tends to breed an inward-looking public that prefers an inward looking media. This is slowing changing over time as more Americans work and study abroad but it has relatively little to do with the substance of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed the reverse is far more likely with the inward-looking public’s attitudes being reflected in various ways in government policy, including foreign policy. And finally, I meant no insult by the word “provincial” which could still be the case even with your multiple national connections. I have known American diplomats with 30 years experience living abroad whose attitudes could have been formed by living in Kansas City, Kansas for all of that time.

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