Diverse foreign news reporting increasingly depends on poorly paid freelancers who take personal risks to get stories. That was the consensus at a panel discussion on June 7 with former Institute of Current World Affairs fellows who have gone on to report for leading print, broadcast and digital outlets.

Moderator Joel Millman—a former fellow and Wall Street Journal reporter based in Mexico City—began by playing audio of an NPR interview in the 1980s with The New York Times correspondent James LeMoyne from El Salvador, who highly praised the effectiveness of a recent military victory by Salvadoran rebels.

“It speaks to how free and independent journalism was 32 years ago,” Joel said, “partly because of the sheer numbers of reporters that were deployed in the region… It was very hard for a reporter to simply repeat what were the government lines, anyone’s government.”

It’s the kind of diversity of views ICWA has supported by sending fellows into the field to gain deep understanding of foreign societies, Joel said. “Today, as interest shrinks and news becomes one commodity, you see that diversity moving away,” he added. “The messaging is almost always controlled by people in power, either at networks or newspapers of the government itself.”

Chi-Chi Zhang—a fellow in China examining migration and urbanization who now works at Google News—described her work with engineers to build algorithms that aggregate news at a time tech companies are facing deep skepticism for enabling the spread of fake news. “The mission of the product is to empower everyone to understand the world around them with access to quality news.” Do they succeed? “One of the biggest challenges is surfacing high-quality news,” Chi-Chi said. “I think that’s something we can do better.”

Neri Zilber—a former fellow in Israel who is a journalist and analyst based in Tel Aviv—spoke about the disruption of journalism by digital media. “In terms of the industry, I’m pretty Marxist,” he said. “The economics, the technology really determine how things operate today: less advertising revenue; less money; fewer bureaus open in foreign capitals all over the world; journalists asked to do more with less increasingly going after clicks, not subscribers; internet giants like Google hoovering up ad revenue.” Increasing numbers of outlets depend on poorly paid freelancers who take risks, he said.

Israel has also been affected by the upheaval, although it is unique because “it’s always a high-profile story” in the United States. “There’s endless appetite.” Still, reporting is done mainly through the prism of how it affects the United States and reflects American editors’ understanding of Middle East politics, with emphasis on conflict more than anything. When 500,000 Israelis took to the street to protest high prices in 2011, Neri said by way of example, few editors were interested in covering the story until the protests’ second month.

Shannon Sims, a former fellow in Brazil who still reports from the country, evoked a similar dynamic describing her coverage of Brazil for The New York Times and other outlets: editors unwilling to publish stories outside the urban centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, including a feature she pitched about the views of rural Brazilians in the Amazon during last year’s presidential election campaign that was later included in a book of best travel writing of the year. “That story is not ‘newsworthy,’ it’s not super-clickable,” Shannon said, “but it’s a valuable story that should be told, about possibly hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who are all voted in the election.”

“The best way to learn about Brazil was just to take risks,” she concluded of freelancers like her.

Gregory Feifer—a fellow in Russia who was later NPR Moscow correspondent—spoke about the perils of taking President Vladimir Putin at his word. “That’s a very bad idea when it comes to such junctures as the Kremlin offering the United States a chemical weapons deal in Syria—as it did to the Obama administration, prompting the president to change policy at last minute,” he said. “We know the result: the US ended up creating a power vacuum in Syria, and it was only a matter of time until Putin filled it by taking up bombing in Syria, propping up Bashar al-Assad and exacerbating what was already most pressing Western security issue at the time.”

Still, many experts insisted for years that the path to peace in Syria lay through Moscow, Greg added, when nothing could have been further from the truth: Putin’s overriding motive was to obstruct the West. “And Assad still has chemical weapons.”

He and the other panelists agreed on one overarching point: the value of reporters with intimate knowledge of foreign cultures and the ability to report stories they see as important—the kind of knowledge all agreed their ICWA fellowships provided. With the media industry continuing to be disrupted by the digital revolution, however, there were no clear answers about how to ensure the American public understands what’s happening in the world.

Video highlights coming soon.

Photo: (left to right) Chi-Chi Zhang, Neri Zilber, Shannon Sims and Gregory Feifer
Svetlana Nekrasova | www.svetanekrasova.com)