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Are foreign correspondents redundant?

Are foreign correspondents redundant? This is the question addressed by a new research paper on the changing face of international news, commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University, and written by visiting fellow Richard Sambrook, former BBC director of global news.

Sambrook introduced his 100-page analysis to an audience of news professionals at Thomson Reuters’ London headquarters at Canary Wharf on Wednesday and then took part in a panel discussion chaired by David Schlesinger, Reuters editor-in-chief. The other panellists were Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News, John Owen of Al-Jazeera and City University, and Fran Unsworth, BBC head of newsgathering.

Three main factors have contributed to the gradual demise of traditional foreign correspondents, according to Sambrook:

  • Economic – cost cutting as the old business model of Western news organisations has had to adapt to tougher commercial pressures
  • Technological – the impact of rapid change in international communications, digital reporting techniques and the Internet
  • Cultural – globalisation, familiarisation and the rise of local reporters and “citizen journalists”.

On balance Sambrook concluded that he found more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic about the future of international reporting. Answering his own question, are foreign correspondents redundant, he replies in his paper: “By no means. But they will be very different from their predecessors and work in very different ways to serve the digital news environment of the 21st century.”

The panel agreed on the need for new business models and new operating methods, while insisting on the fundamental responsibility of the media to bear witness through professional reporting directly from the scene – what John Owen called “ground truth”.

They also agreed that the crisis in international news reporting was principally a Western phenomenon, with much greater growth expected in Asia and other rapidly developing societies around the world. ■

Reuters Institute