Closer to Home: Long Relegated to the Margins, Foreign News Has Experienced a Modest Resurgence since September 11. but Much of the Coverage Has Focused on the War on Terrorism and the Middle East. Will the Blackout Return after the Crises Ebb? (Update)

Article excerpt

THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH'S NEWS MEETINGS TAKE PLACE IN A ROOM WITH walls covered by a world map and an assortment of old news photos and cartoons. That hasn't changed for a long time. But what goes on at those meetings has.

On this day, April 1, Metro Editor Kathleen Best reports first and says she has nothing to offer for page one. But Tim Poor, the national editor (whose bailiwick includes foreign) has plenty, including a dispatch on Israel's continued offensive in the West Bank and a Washington bureau story explaining President Bush's Middle East policies. Both stories run out front the next day.

While the Post-Dispatch has, in its 124-year history, often had a broader outlook than many regional papers, in recent years it seemed that almost any decent local story could keep virtually any foreign news off of page one.

September 11 changed that--to some extent.

"All things being equal, we prefer local news," says Steve Parker, the news editor in charge of page one. "But we don't skew things now. Before September 11, we skewed heavily to local." Poor agrees. "What gets me is when a local story goes on page one just because it's local. We used to do that a lot; less now."

What's true of the Post-Dispatch seems true of papers across the country.

Many are putting more energy and resources into their foreign reports than at any time since the Cold War. Reporters are going abroad for short-term assignments when they didn't before; page-one editors are not grimacing when wire editors promote foreign stories for the front; and more space is being found for stories with international datelines.

When Peter Arnett first surveyed foreign coverage for the Project on the State of the American Newspaper more than three-and-a-half years ago, he stated: 'Til put it simply: International news coverage in most of America's mainstream papers has almost reached the vanishing point. Today, a foreign story that doesn't involve bombs, natural disasters or financial calamity has little chance of entering the American consciousness." (See "Goodbye, World," November 1998.)

In such times--the late 1990s, for example--most foreign stories plucked off the wire at most newspapers looked forward to an obscure life in an obscure column called "world report" or "world in brief."

The distressing irony, many editors discovered too late, is that what was going on in the Muslim world became the biggest local story most of us had ever seen, regardless of where we lived.

Now, says Keith Graham, world editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution--echoing the sentiments of many of his peers--top editors "have become more aware that foreign news is important, and that people need to be exposed to it."

But a word of caution: The changed attitude should not be overstated. Local news is still comfortably atop the food chain. Foreign is just not as far down.

Further, when editors send reporters abroad, it is often for stories that have some hometown connection; seldom is it just because a situation is inherently interesting.

And Arnett's observation about bombs, disaster and financial calamity is still largely valid. The two stories dominating the foreign report, Afghanistan and the Middle East, are certainly filled with bombs and disaster. Those two stories are eating most of the space allotted for foreign news, even if that space has increased somewhat since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Those caveats aside, there does seem to be a new acceptance of the notion that what happens abroad affects local readers as residents of the world's most important country. It deserves good play. And more space should be devoted to it.

How long will this last? The general consensus: The appetite for foreign news will remain hearty for some time; it will slowly dissipate, but it is not likely to become anemic again in the foreseeable future. …