Freelancers' Vital Role in International Reporting: With the Rise of Media Conglomerates, Foreign News Has Been Shoved Aside. (Coverage of Terrorism)

By Thayer, Nate | Nieman Reports, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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Freelancers' Vital Role in International Reporting: With the Rise of Media Conglomerates, Foreign News Has Been Shoved Aside. (Coverage of Terrorism)


Thayer, Nate, Nieman Reports


At an annual gathering of the International Consortium of Invesigative Journalists in July, I sat with Ahmed Rashid, a renowned Pakistani journalist, and discussed the decreasing appetite for international news. Rashid has spent a lifetime writing about Afghanistan. He spoke then of diminishing interest from editors for his stories. "No one is interested in Afghanistan anymore," he concluded. His brilliant book, "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," was newly published and was meeting with a good response from those who maintained an interest in this "irrelevant" corner of the world.

Typical for an accomplished and respected freelance journalist, Rashid writes for a number of publications, relying on a core handful of news organizations to make a living. But, he said in July, even these were rejecting stories they once would have published. The Islamabad-based Rashid said it was a struggle to get anything published on Central Asia in the British- and American-owned publications he relied on.

Only weeks later, after the events of September 11, I smile as I pass my small-town bookstore and see Ahmed Rashid's "Taliban" prominently placed on a rack next to the cash register--number one on The New York Times bestseller list. I see Rashid regularly on television and quoted copiously by journalists now descending on the region--22 years after he began reporting full time from and about Afghanistan.

The pleasure is mixed with melancholy for the state of international reporting. Hundreds of freshly arriving foreign correspondents obscure the fact that they are often dispatched by major news organizations to cover international events only after they are overtaken by them. And their presence obscures the crucial role that local and freelance journalists play in ensuring that these otherwise forgotten places are properly covered in the absence of a major media presence.

Further, the key role played by "foreign" freelance journalists in providing the backbone of international coverage highlights the importance of the principle of a press free from the influence of any government. Many, if not most, of those who gather information for the American-owned press are not American. And many of those who read or view the American-owned press are not American. And for those who are, so what? The concept that reporters should have some allegiance to their government is not only fundamentally contrary to the role of a credible and independent press, it presupposes a false premise: that news organizations are homogeneously comprised of nationals of the country of which they have their primary audience.

It is freelancers and local journalists who are now playing a crucial role in Central Asia in ensuring that the world understands these events as they have rocketed to the forefront of international attention. When a story forces media executives to react to events, their reporters must turn to those who are informed and on the ground. Invariably, those they turn to are freelance local journalists such as Ahmed Rashid.

At the same time, the events of September 11 should have sent a cautionary signal to major media conglomerates, which increasingly are controlled by people who have demonstrated an insufficient commitment to the role of a free press and well informed public in world affairs. These news outlets are increasingly driven by their marketing departments, public relations people and lawyers, whose values too often infiltrate the newsrooms and effectively seize control. Non-journalists are increasingly determining what is news and treating it as a commodity, selling it like shampoo or cars.

The world press has indeed been absent from Central Asia since the Soviets and the CIA pulled out a decade ago. Before September 11, how many news organizations had staff reporters in Islamabad, much less in Kabul, or in the countries just north of Afghanistan?

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