The International Reporting Project, which supported the work of 651 writers in more than 115 countries for over two decades, announced in January that it would shut its doors. At virtually the same moment, Foreign Policy laid off its foreign editors. John Maxwell Hamilton observed in his 2009 history of American foreign reporting, Journalism’s Roving Eye, that “all the problems of journalism are magnified in foreign news-gathering.” It is expensive, time-consuming, and challenging to edit, since the expertise usually flows in one direction. What’s more—and Hamilton resorts to considerable understatement here—journalists “must put this news in context for an audience with a limited appetite for foreign affairs, which makes the high cost of foreign correspondence particularly vulnerable to cost cutting.”
Same as it ever was, you might say. But the profession’s metastasizing economic crisis has exacerbated the problem. In 2014, a Pew study estimated that between 2003 and 2010 foreign reporting was cut by 24 percent. Going back a bit further, a Tyndall study of US network television found just one-third as much foreign reporting reaching viewers in 2016 compared with 1998.
Of course, 2017 brought its own combination of crises. The news media’s obsession with the ignorant blowhard/con man/pathological liar/racist/sexual predator/serial tweeter occupying the White House has provided a body blow to a patient already on life support. Nathalie Applewhite, managing director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, told Yardena Schwartz of the Columbia Journalism Review that these days, even when the costs are covered, the center’s grantees often cannot place their pieces. Commitments to publish and produce are scarce, and those reports already agreed to remain “on the shelf,” often indefinitely, as Trump dominates the news cycle like a never-ending hurricane.
Keep in mind that foreign reporting can be dangerous, especially for freelancers trying to do work that is no longer in the budgets of the increasingly rare foreign bureaus. Last year ended with 46 journalists killed and 262 behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. (This is a smaller number than in 2016, reflecting the fact that there are fewer journalists covering these stories.)
Independent journalists are particularly vulnerable due to their lack of institutional affiliation, and they make up approximately one-third of those imprisoned or killed. Numerous critics have noted that Trump’s constant attacks on “fake news” and on the media as the “enemy of the people” have emboldened foreign dictators to take out their own frustrations on journalists reporting on corruption and/or massacres. We saw a textbook case of this when CNN International reported on the slave trade in Libya, only to be met with attacks on Libyan TV quoting none other than the current US president. These came, it must be noted, without any alternative evidence or, apparently, any perceived need for it. There are now countless phony news sources ready to muddy the truth on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere in the service of these autocrats, as well as of our own.