Several of the nation’s top names in journalism came to the University of Michigan Friday to discuss how foreign journalism has evolved in recent years and why it has significance in today’s media landscape.
The event was held to mark the retirement of Charles Eisendrath, who announced in October he would step down as director of University’s Knight-Wallace house after 30 years. The Knight-Wallace House aims to promote journalism in several ways, including hosting mid-career journalists as fellows on campus each year. Eisendrath will be replaced by Lynette Clemetson, current senior director of strategy and content initiatives at National Public Radio.
In making the case for the importance of foreign news, all three panelists — CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, and founder of Politico John Harris— and moderator David Greene, co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition, advocated for impactful, thoughtful and unrelenting foreign coverage, despite the many risks that kind of coverage can entail.
Greene began the night by speaking on the challenges he faced covering the Gaddafi government amid violence in Libya, saying that foreign reporting is essential not despite these conditions, but because of them. He pointed in particular to a situation in which he covered an alleged funeral for victims of airstrikes in Libya, though he suspected the event was orchestrated by government officials.
“We were in an oppressive reporting environment where we were being fed propaganda, we felt we could not report on the truth and it was really an uncomfortable environment for journalists to being in.” he said. “The Gaddafi government wouldn't answer and questions about where the airstrikes were or how this happened, it almost seemed like there was a show. There were people firing guns in the air on the shores of the Mediterranean but where those bullets were going, I had no idea — though I’m glad they weren’t falling on any of us. ”
In conjunction with the physical risks and factual challenges of reporting on foreign news, panelists also highlighted another, more logistical concern — resource allocation between foreign and domestic coverage. Baquet said before the September 11 attacks, foreign news was seen by many publications as not worth the fiscal risks, but this mentality has been changing in recent years.
“If you take your eye off the ball of covering the world, you miss gigantic stories and you miss transformational moments,” he said. “It’s our highest mission, especially for the news organization that are fortunate enough to have the resources to cover the world — and there are fewer of those — and finally, I think that the dirty secret is that people always wanted foreign news.”
Citing the recent launch of Politico Europe, Harris said in recent years, foreign coverage has highlighted an unique circumstance in which editorial and the business opportunities collide.
“Our audience, advertisers and subscribers reflect this reality: the world is a lot closer now. They are saying, ‘if you do something in Europe, count us interested,’” Harris said. “We are doing this because it’s interesting, but we’re also doing this because we think it’s a robust business opportunity. I think that’s pretty exciting when you can combine attractive editorial targets with a business model that can be sustained.”
Panelists also touched on how modern audiences can be reached in a world of social media and unlimited information sources online. Baquet said despite the shifts in accessibility, journalists should listen to their audiences, who he said have demonstrated they want serious and compelling stories — both domestic and abroad.
“If people look at their audience, people want serious stuff,” Baquet said. “No one's coming to the New York Times in droves because of our coverage of Britney Spears.”
Amanpour noted that though foreign news often offers a platform for an audience's desires and journalist’s interests to overlap, the craft of a journalist should also be focused on more than pleasing the audience.
“The whole point of information is to tell you about what you don't know you don't know,” she said.
Harris echoed Amanpour’s sentiment, saying journalism should emphasize “feeding them their spinach” in a compelling way.
“I think journalism has an obligation to be interesting,” Harris said. “The world is interesting, we should be interesting. The human dimensions of a story are important and I don’t believe in making an audience do something dutifully, it’s a challenge to your journalism storytelling abilities to make a story interesting.”
He added that distinctions between old and new journalism are outdated, saying just as the field of journalism as a whole evolves, so should the way foreign news is approached and discussed.
“(Foreign news) used to be a section in the paper or a segment on the nightly news and I think that’s obsolete,” he said. “There is no important issue domestically in our politics today that I don’t think has a huge international dimension, and that’s why it’s important.”
Echoing a common theme of the night, Amanpour emphasized to the audience that the distinction between foreign and domestic news has become blurred.
“We have to double down on foreign coverage because we are the eyes and ears of our viewers, our readers, our listeners and it’s not foreign news, it is American news in this globalized world,” Amanpour said. “Especially in the United States which seeks to project its considerable power and culture and values, people in the United States need to know what’s going on in the world.”
Mercy High School sophomore Emma Tomsich, who attended the event, said she found the panelists inspiring.
“I liked all of their information about fairness and truth and the quote, ‘good business is good journalism’” Tomsich said.
Editor-in-chief Shoham Geva contributed to this report.