Making editors look lazy, cheap and dumb
Brian Cathcart: Making editors look lazy, cheap and dumb
01 Nov 10

Foreign news coverage is in steep decline in the national press and we are turning our backs on the rest of the world. That, in a sentence, is the message of a simple and impressive study published today by the Media Standards Trust.

Shrinking World” compares four national dailies over a given week in 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 and finds a 40 per cent drop in the number of international news stories published. In 1979, on average, foreign news took up one-fifth of a daily paper; in 2009 the figure is 11 per cent.

Editors won’t like this because it makes them look lazy, cheap and dumb. They will either ignore it, or they will have a go at the trust (‘Who are these people anyway?”) or they will look for little holes in its methodology.

But the report is shocking and the declines are far, far steeper than I for one had expected. You might think, for example, that wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would have boosted the 2009 figures; well the truth is that they did, but the effect was only to raise them above even more appalling depths.

I gather that one newspaper executive, asked about these low levels of coverage of events abroad, remarked that his staff would write about China if only there were more celebrities in China. Heaven help us.

As the veteran Daily Mail foreign correspondent Harry Edgington points out, we in Britain are used to the idea that Americans are ignorant of the world because their news media are so insular. That, we tell ourselves, is why their politics are so xenophobic and why, for example, they could so easily be persuaded to link Iraq with 9/11.

Well that beam is now in our eye. Why are the British still so comically/tragically un-European, despite nearly 40 years of EU membership? Well, maybe it is because they aren’t told anything about other Europeans that isn’t written in London by people with little or no understanding of what they are describing.

The trust didn’t explore the content of the reporting, but my bet is that, of the rump of foreign journalism that survives, the biggest slice is about America (where they speak English and have lots of celebrities) while much of the rest deals with wars and disasters. What sort of world view is that?

And don’t let’s kid ourselves that this is just an old media problem. The Mail, Guardian, Times, Sun, Telegraph, Mirror and so forth remain the dominant organs of news in this country both in print and online. The general public is not reading Reuters online every day, nor is it dabbling in Le Monde or the Washington Post, or even the Drudge Report and Perez Hilton.

And those papers shape the broadcast news agenda. Sky and ITN (with the exception of C4 news) provide foreign coverage which is overwhelmingly America-plus-disasters too. Only the BBC (which the Murdoch/Mail press naturally hate with a passion) stands up for a wider world view, though even it is normally led by the big papers.

Editors responding to Shrinking World may plead (if they are unusually frank) that it’s the readers’ fault, that people just aren’t interested in what happens in Egypt or Russia or France. They may also plead that it’s all too expensive: they can’t afford foreign bureaux any more. These are the counsels of failure. Journalists and editors are supposed to provide some kind of meaningful reflection of the real world: they are not supposed to hide in some cheap, shiny corner of it.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London, he tweets @BrianCathcart