Spotlight: How to Save Foreign Reporting

With the decline of the foreign correspondent, what are we losing, and how can we try to preserve it?

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It's a truism by this point that old media institutions aren't what they used to be. Revenues are dwindling, the Internet has made everything faster and ruined our brains, and probing, in-depth reporting is gradually being phased out in favor of lame slideshows and pandering jokes about Animorphs. For many, these trends are embodied in the decline of the once-venerable figure of the foreign correspondent, who flew all over the world at great expense and spent weeks or months getting to know and understand a place. In a column for The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash, a veteran far-flung correspondent from the old days of newspapers, explains what's been lost as the foreign bureaus close up--and how we can save that which is worth saving.

On His Own Adventures in the Field

I still have four petrol cans in Skopje. I bought them to drive a rented 4x4 from Macedonia into Kosovo, immediately after the Nato invasion of the devastated province in 1999, when petrol stations could not be relied on to have petrol. I drove that hard-sprung Lada around for several days, talking to Kosovar Albanians who had fled in fear of Serbian genocide and were now returning home, their tractor-drawn trailers piled high with mattresses and children; to the melancholy Serbian Father Theodosius, in his lovely, isolated monastery in the foothills of the Accursed Mountains; and to a ruthless commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Ramush Haradinaj, who unforgettably confided in me, in his weirdly Finnish Brummie-accented English: "Me, oih couldn't be no Mother Teresa."

On What the Ideal Foreign Correspondent Does

It seems to me that there are three features of the work of the foreign correspondent that we should want to preserve, and enhance, in new forms of news gathering and delivery. They are: independent, honest and, so far as possible, accurate and impartial witnessing of events, people and circumstances; deciphering and setting them in local context, explaining who's who, what's what, and a bit of why; and, last but not least, interpreting what is going on in this particular place, at this particular time, in a broader comparative and historical frame. Witnessing, deciphering, interpreting.

On How 'Witnessing' Can Still Go On

So far as witnessing goes, there are now fantastic new ways of doing it--by video, phone camera, and so on--which have not been available for most of human history ... A multiplicity of eyewitness reports, video and audio clips, and blogs, many of them by local people who actually (unlike many foreign correspondents) speak the language, can produce a fine collage of first-hand evidence.

Deciphering, Too

Nor is the local deciphering necessarily best done by a foreigner. I have often observed how foreign correspondents rely for this deciphering on fixers, interpreters, local journalists and a few trusted sources ... Why not have the local voices speak to you direct, supplemented by those of outside academic specialists on the countries concerned? This requires careful, skilled editing, to be sure, but will certainly be cheaper than a full-dress foreign correspondent's office.

As For Interpreting--Well, It Does Help to Get On a Plane

All my experience cries out to me: there is nothing to compare with being there. However many thousands of fantastic clips, blogs and online transcripts you have, there is nothing to compare with being there. Only by buying those petrol cans, driving around in that bone-shaking 4x4, seeing the suffering with my own eyes, could I truly understand, and therefore less inadequately interpret, what happened in Kosovo. You can't do it only from an armchair.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.