Where are all our Foreign Correspondents?

Apr 18, 11 Where are all our Foreign Correspondents?

South African media houses have lost the scope of coverage in international affairs. Content to piggy-back off global wires, there are precious few local newspapers or media outlets in general who give international affairs more than the courtesy kick required to make a publication appear well-rounded. As a consequence we have entered into a downward spiral in international journalism. By failing to cover foreign affairs with local journalists, and by keeping the regurgitation thereof to a minimum, South Africans themselves are becoming increasingly ignorant about international affairs and how it affects them. We have become satisfied with gleaming merely the shallow surface tidbits of globalised media, gossiping about the royal wedding or decrying the evils of America’s latest neo-liberalist expansion into the unwashed Arab masses. All of this we do with a thinly-veiled relish, and it has made our society shallow.

For example, how many South Africans readily criticise the national military as lazy incompetents who are predominantly HIV positive and strike annually as if it’s in vogue, yet are blithely unaware of the valuable contributions we are making or have made in the DRC, Burundi, Sudan, Mozambique (on land and at sea) and elsewhere? I would wager very few, and if there is some dim perception of South Africa’s broader involvement in international affairs, it is swiftly overshadowed by the latest local scandals. Julius Malema is after all far more worthy of front page coverage (from which no small portion of his power is derived) than the work being done to prevent civil war in Africa. This is an objective failure of the media houses to put the importance of foreign affairs above chasing the juiciest tale occurring nearby. It is expensive to send a foreign correspondent into deepest darkest Africa, after all, to cover a conflict which nobody knows about and nobody cares about. But that’s the point; foreign affairs has become irrelevant to South African interests because nobody knows what our involvement is there, beyond vague Reuters or SAPA snippets mentioning large UN peacekeeping contingents which contain a miscellany of African forces.

The media have a responsibility to provide objective coverage, and that comes with a cost. Eliminating the foreign correspondent has cost far more than money to our society. It has as a result generated the complete ignorance of vital foreign crises in which we get involved. There was a time not so long ago when our foreign press were world-renowned for their efforts. Kevin Carter anyone? But this has disappeared, with the only local journalists covering foreign events are those on the buck of the government (to write glowing reports of diplomatic exchanges between presidents) or those doing it for non-South African media (Greg Marinovich, for example.)

The prime motivator must be money. If it is not a question of budget, then the lack of foreign journalists is baffling, since they add substantial value in what they do. Not just in reporting foreign events from a South African perspective, but in creating a national awareness of just what it is that goes on in our world, and how our country is or is not involved. So the logical explanation is that the newspaper houses have no money to put someone in Central Africa to tell us what the SANDF are doing, or in Afghanistan to cover the hundreds of South Africans working there either in NGOs or for Private Military Contractors, or even in the Coalition Forces fighting there. We have nobody looking into the spread of Pirate attacks occurring down in Mozambican and Tanzanian waters, and we have no idea beyond the wires’ 200 words on just what South Africans should think about the sentencing of 2 Croat generals at the Hague.

So we assume we don’t need to worry about that stuff since the newspapers could not be bothered to have any serious discussion about it, and continue instead the coffee table chatter about how horrid Malema looked while dancing outside the court, or the gosh-darn potholes which aren’t being fixed. Important issues for the South African public sphere, but it is not the complete picture. For that we need to tune into overseas signals, and that’s a crying shame.

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  • Mac

    Thought provoking but i don’t really agree with you on this one, well gut take anyway. Correspondence is expensive and it should be treated like any other commodity and we should purchase from those that have a competitive advantage (presently BBC etc but soon to be Al-Jazeera and co.). It is difficult to motivate spending huge amounts of money covering foreign stories.

    Where i do agree with you, and possibly this was your point (read through very quickly) is that SA media should cover areas where we as South Africans are involved (DRC for example – areas closer to home where costs are not so prohibitive) rather than having some SABC twit living it up in NY to cover a meeting of the general assembly at the UN. When it comes down to budget prohibiting this, then the local media should make sure that they get some sort of press release from the govt that they can then combine with foreign press and information from NGOs in SA in the form of some sort of foreign event analysis. We need not break the bank to be well educated when it comes to foreign affairs.

    I think your piece is more an indictment of journalists being unable to offer sensible and informative commentary with what they have. There is really no need to pop SA journalists on the ground when there are already British or American or Qatari or … journalists there. What we need is someone to write their info up for the SA public and i think that is where the breakdown occurs.

    Of course, on the flip side it is easy to crit the press but the South African reading public would rather read about Julius than Sudan or potholes rather than Moz and unfortunately solving that problem isn’t as easy. God only knows why anybody reads the sun but i think its the best selling daily in SA. Perhaps decent foreign analysis in the SABC news or in the bigger local papers is a start. Until then, for the discerning reader, there is stuff out there – you just have to look for it and be prepared to pay a bit more.

    • The problem comes in when you read the wires’ news snippets and realise that from those 50 words of generic news, South African journalists are spinning entire stories full of nonsensical fluff. Not because they’re uninterested in what’s going on in said country or crisis, but because their bosses have no budget to find out, and anyway it’s not like the readers would appreciate it anyway. If we were to treat news as a commodity, perhaps we should outsource all local events as well to the BBC and Al Jazeera, since their coverage of South African events is often more compelling than the bile served up locally.

      My problem is twofold. First is that South Africans no longer care about substantial foreign affairs issues. Only a small percentage of graduate students and retirees really pay attenion these days. Secondly, the news media are ok with that, because it relieves them of the burden of trying to provide an insight into news which affects all South Africans, whether or not we have people there (but if we do, all the more need.)

      We are not a nation of discerning readers. Before, that was not a problem, since our foreign correspondents were out and about, reporting on global issues which affect us, or are newsworthy in of themselves. That is no more. And that, in my opinion, is a crying shame.

      I did hear on the radio though that Eyewitness News managed to dig really deep into their pockets to send a South African journalist to London to report on the royal wedding. It’s comforting to know that sometimes the newspapers truly understand what is important to know versus sensationalist garbage…

  • RT @TheAfricanScene: Where are all our foreign correspondents? — http://tiny.cc/kgs6e — #SouthAfrica #media #journalism

  • Just a 2c question on this golden age of South African foreign correspondence John. When would it have been that we had

    “our foreign correspondents were out and about, reporting on global issues which affect us, or are newsworthy in of themselves”

    I don’t recall this being extensively the case pre-1994, and certainly not in the last decade or so? That is rhetorical. I don’t think this period of good South African foreign correspondence ever existed.

    I agree with your overall thrust though – we most definitely need to create one. A network in Africa in particular, since we can always get good-length reportage from the US and Europe, but actually know terribly little about our own continent. Where we do get African reportage, it is all-too-often via republication of western reporting views on the issues. Creating an African network of correspondents and stringers would be a step in the right direction to reconnecting South Africa with the continent it happens to be a part of.

  • Claire Hawkridge

    Even if a network of top foreign correspondents isn’t immediately affordable, is it too much to ask that the journalists who are turning out stories for the SA press know something about the countries on which they report? In fact, it would be a good start to feel like the reporters have some passing interest in news.

  • RT @TheAfricanScene: Where are all our foreign correspondents? — http://tiny.cc/kgs6e — #SouthAfrica #media #journalism