News outlets are cutting back more and more on foreign coverage, even though international events obviously have profound effects domestically. Brooke talks to MIT's Ethan Zuckerman, author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection about the past and future of foreign reporting, and how he would like to do away with the term "foreign news" altogether.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to the ancient Romans, the dog days of summer end this weekend, August 24th, to be exact, a time of year the ancients said when the seas boil, wine sours and men become fevered and frenzied. This past week had the feel of the dog days, what with the radioactive water issuing from Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Plant, the reported death of hundreds from chemical weapon attacks in Syria, the toll climbing past the thousands of those killed in clashes between the Egyptian military and supporters of ousted President Morsi.
Now, I don’t mention America’s domestic woes because they’re better covered, thus harder to ignore. But Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civil Media and author of the new book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, says that the shorter shrift we give to the rest of the world brings great risks. In fact, he’d like to do away with the very term “foreign news.”
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Foreign news sort of implies that it doesn't affect us in the United States. All we really need to pay attention to is what happens in our community and occasionally what happens in an election. And, of course, that's farcical.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, Stephen Colbert has made a whole deal of this.
STEPHEN COLBERT: You know, there are mysterious forces out there, forces beyond our comprehension that have a strange influence on all of us. I speak, of course, of the terrifying phenomenon known as “other countries.”
This is un-American news!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think the state of play is with regard to international news coverage?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: A great academic study recently done looking at international news coverage in the US on NBC News and on the New York Times, from 1950 to 2006, the number of countries has shrunk, the number of total stories has shrunk. Alisa Miller, when she was the head of Public Radio International, did a great TED Talk, were she looked at international news coverage and broadcast media in the US, saw it shrinking from about 35 percent of the news hole in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, down to less than 15 percent these days.
ALISA MILLLER: So, why don't we hear more about the world? One reason is that news networks have reduced the number of their foreign bureaus by half. Aside from one-person ABC mini-bureaus in Nairobi, New Delhi and Mumbai, there are no network news bureaus in all of Africa, India or South America.and this lack of global coverage is all the more disturbing when we see where people go for news. Local TV news looms large and, unfortunately, only dedicates 12 percent of its coverage to international news.
And what about the Web? The most popular news sites don't do much better. Last year, Pew and the Colombia J-School analyzed the 14,000 stories that appeared on Google News' front page. And they, in fact, covered the same 24 news events. Similarly, a study in e-content showed that much of global news from U.S. news creators is recycled stories from the AP wire services and Reuters, and don't put things into a context that people can understand their connection to it.So this could help explain why today's college graduates, as well as less educated Americans, know less about the world than their counterparts did 20 years ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a study – I think it came out of Harvard – and it determined that in this age of infinite information sources, people who are naturally curious are better informed than they were prior to the existence of those sources, and people who are not curious are less informed. So, once again, it seems to boil down to human nature. The more choice we have presented to us, the more we choose parochially. Is there a cure for that?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I think your formulation’s exactly right. And I talk a lot about three forms of discovery. There's an old form of discovery where we read a newspaper, we listen to a news broadcast and we’re led by the editor. Whatever gets put in front of us, we’re gonna consume or not consume. And we know that there are biases to that. But at least it tends to push us towards variety.
Then we move to search engines, and search engines are a wonderful tool for the curious. You find anything that you're interested in, anything that you're excited by, but there's no guarantee that what you're interested in is going to expand over time. There's no guarantee that it's gonna pull you away from local concerns. We are all hardwired to pay attention to the people who are most like us. It's a sociological tendency called homophile It's one of the strongest and best-documented social forces. We have a very strong tendency to pay attention to the people who are already close to us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is not merely an academic issue for you. Back in 2004, you created Global Voices, a way to offer translated material from citizen media all across the world. You were disappointed.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: My ambition was we would be able to hand NPR and the New York Times and all these other wonderful journalistic organizations so many stories from the developing world that we would see a meaningful shift in coverage. And so, we’re now more than eight years into the project. We’ve got 1100 people who work on putting the site together. We put out editions in 30 languages. But, at the end of the day, we have a much smaller reach than we would have thought. A lot of the people who pay attention to Global Voices want to know information from the country that they came from or the country that they study.
What we’ve gotten right is we've gotten very good at translating it, in trying to make international news understandable to US audiences. What we have not done at all is tried to figure out how to say to a US audience, “You really need to know about this, even if you don't think you need to know about this.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In trying to find a solution, you’ve become a, a big proponent of sites like okayafrica, which introduces African hip-hop to American audiences. VICE is a site for Western hipsters, which has been reporting features from the Congo and, and North Korea. Is this the kind of news that you're talking about?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, so that’s a great pairing, right? Okayafrica is a project from the roots, the legendary hip-hop crew, and it's a terrific way for people who are hip-hop fans but don’t actually know very much about Africa to get introduced to what's going on in an incredibly diverse musical culture and in some cases, actually, get tied into the politics. So you find yourself reading on okayafrica about Senegalese hip-hop and you very quickly find yourself reading about a group called Y'en a Marre, which is an activist group made of Senegalese journalists and rap stars who managed to mobilize 600,000 youth voters and ousted Abdoulaye Wade and brought in Macky Sall and, before you know it, you’re sort of nose deep in West African politics.
It's also possible to get it wrong. And, you know, in my experience VICE, at least on Africa, probably gets it wrong more than they get it right. A VICE PR person asked me to look at a video that they'd done on rampant alcoholism in Uganda, the drunkest nation on the planet. You know, it is the second highest alcohol consumption in sub-Saharan Africa. It doesn't compare to Europe. It’s not even in the same league. So basically, it's the drunkest black people.
And so, if you actually wanted representation of, of what contemporary Uganda, a country that I know pretty well, is like, it falls pretty short.
So there's definitely something to be said about building programming that's compelling, that plays on people's existing interests in, in movies and music and food and culture and fashion. But there's also a question of who gets to speak, and are you showcasing people on the ground or are you basically laughing at difference? But I think what both okayafrica and VICE do is demonstrate that there is potentially an audience for international news and culture. The question is how do we do people in the door?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How important do you think the old model was, or is - you know, reporters who actually live in the place, those who parachute in reflect the values and see through the lens of their parent organization, so good riddance?
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Here's the piece that I want to keep from the old system. The old system said we have a responsibility to give you news that you may not think you care about because we think it's important and good for you. I am okay with losing the veteran foreign correspondent, if we get very, very good at identifying great talent on the ground who can bridge that gap for us. And what I’m optimistic about is that I'm meeting incredibly smart, savvy writers, many of whom are purely writing online at this point, who could open the door. With some coaching, with some help, with some editing, I think we could have another Golden Age of international news, but we’d have to want it and we’d have to choose to build it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you could just convince people that it would make them thinner, you'd have a much better chance.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I think some of it's about human connection. Our Middle East editor is an amazing Bahraini woman named Amira Al Hussaini. There are a lot of people who read Global Voices who feel like they know Amira and who have started following Bahrain passionately because of having that relationship with her as a writer and her as a correspondent. And as we start caring about those people, maybe we start caring about some of those stories.
I’ve had a wonderful ongoing conversation with Cameron Marlow, who's the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook. And his argument is, yep, see this problem. we’re gonna fix it, so don’t worry about it –
- because what's gonna happen soon is you'll have a Bahraini within two degrees of your circle on Facebook and because a friend of a friend cares about Bahrain, you’re gonna care about Bahrain. And, therefore, the New York Times doesn't need to cover it.
I'm not convinced I care about what my friends of friends think. I think people are one way we got there. I want to make the case that international news makes us more successful, that it makes us richer, that it makes us better problem solvers. If we can make the case that one of the things we have to protect, as well as our ability to do investigative journalism, as well as our ability to do great state house work, one of the things we have to protect is the ability to feature really important stories from around the world.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan, thank you very much.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Thanks so much, Brooke. This is always such a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Zuckerman is author of, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.