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Features Posted April 09, 1999
Kosovo Highlights Failings in Journalism
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version

Sidebar:
Balkan Bureau Veterans
Related Story:
Beyond B92
For those who already know a good deal about the Balkans, the Internet has been a godsend during the Kosovo crisis. As a library, a specialized message board and a distribution method for dozens of non-traditional sources of information (see "Beyond B92"), the medium has begun to fulfill its ballyhooed promise.
 
But what about the quality of journalism? If anything, the Internet has exposed and accelerated several unhappy trends in international coverage that the news industry has inflicted upon itself this decade -- the slashing of foreign bureaus, over-reliance on wire services and stringers, ignorance of foreign editors and the advent of "logo" journalism.
 
The Kosovo crisis marks perhaps the first time that obscure nonprofits have provided more original news and information about a crucial foreign event than almost every single American newspaper.
 
In the past week, for example, the London-based nonprofit Institute for War and Peace Reporting has published more original articles with a Balkan dateline than the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and Miami Herald combined.
 
With the international press being expelled from Kosovo and Belgrade, and domestic media being muzzled and shut down, news organizations have relied on e-mailed partisan hearsay from within Yugoslavia, and NATO handouts from without.
 
It's a sloppy cocktail. On March 29, for example, news outlets from the BBC to Freedom Forum to the New York Daily News wrote about the brutal Serb-led execution of Kosovo newspaper editor Baton Haxhiu. The Independent of London even printed a full obituary -- a day after Haxhiu emerged, very much alive.
 
Of the few newspapers that have Balkan correspondents on the ground, many parachuted them in from bureaus in Moscow, Paris, London and even Jerusalem. And many of those same newspapers only published wire articles about the budding civil war in Kosovo in the calendar year before diplomatic tensions escalated this February.
 
"Even as they are being asked to prepare themselves for a long, costly, and potentially bloody sacrifice, the public is still struggling to figure out how this nightmare came to be," new media pundit Jon Katz wrote for Freedom Forum April 8. "And how could they know? For more than a year, they've been watching shrieking ideologues on MSNBC and reading about oral sex, alleged rapes, cigars on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post."
 
Actually, the Washington Post and The New York Times have been the only U.S. newspapers to cover the Yugoslav wars more or less continuously this decade. The report card for their rivals looks much more grim.
 
News organizations that only visit regions of the world when they burst into flames are not likely to cover the hot spots with much sophistication.
According to a study published last year by the American Journalism Review, the 1,600 or so American dailies together employ just 286 foreign correspondents -- 186, if you take out the Wall Street Journal. The study's list of international reporters includes exactly one Central European address: that of Pulitzer-prize winning Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Watson, who -- not coincidentally -- is said to be the last U.S. journalist reporting from within Kosovo (click here for his excellent coverage).
 
Other English-language news organizations that have covered Yugoslavia consistently this decade include CNN, The Guardian UK, the Times of London, the Sunday Times, the BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters, and not many else. Not surprisingly, these are largely the same people who are publishing the best Kosovo packages now.
 
The Big Four TV news networks have all but conceded world coverage to CNN, which has more bureaus (24) than its competitors combined. A 1997 study by the Joan Shorenstein Center showed that foreign coverage dropped from 45% of newscast air time in the 1970s to 13.5% by 1995. There was even discussion, first floated last fall after CBS shut down its Moscow and Tel Aviv bureaus, that the networks would develop a feed-sharing agreement with Ted Turner's once-mocked cable empire.
 
News organizations that only visit regions of the world when they burst into flames are not likely to cover the hot spots with much sophistication. International editors whose only dialogue about a region is with the AP wire are not likely to know what questions to ask, or what fallacies to avoid.
 
Those who do manage to scare up original reporting usually deal with stringers. The Yugoslav wars of 1991-95 marked the first major armed conflict covered largely by stringers -- unsalaried freelancers who risk uninsured life and limb for the honor of writing dispatches for the Christian Science Monitor, or the Boston Globe, or Newsweek.
 
These people are the true journalistic heroes of the conflict, willing to live hand-to-mouth in difficult conditions simply because they refuse to give up the wild kick of foreign correspondentry, regardless of industry cutbacks.
 
But -- and it pains me to say this, because these are friends of mine, and I used to be a stringer myself -- stringers by their nature have a built-in incentive to exaggerate the importance of a story. After all, they have to convince baffled editors in Cleveland and Cincinnati just why the latest ministry meeting in Montenegro matters to their readers.
 
Many of the stringers are also parachutists, plopping down for weekend sorties from places like Budapest and Prague, hoping one day to make full staff. During the first part of the decade, many took root in Sarajevo, Zagreb or Belgrade, did heroic reporting for the likes of CNN and Time Magazine, only to be largely forgotten when the shooting stopped. Many have drifted over to human rights organizations, where their new bosses want them to write about Yugoslavia every day.
 
[S]tringers by their nature have a built-in incentive to exaggerate the importance of a story.
Ironically, the shrinking foreign news hole comes at a time when there are more U.S. reporters than ever living abroad. Most, though, either work for the exponentially expanding business wires (Reuters, Bloomberg, Bridge, Dow Jones) or for the scores of new English-language newspapers springing up from Pakistan to the Ukraine.
 
Editors and publishers who insist that the public just doesn't care about international news should look again. CNN.com's traffic went up 963% after the bombing started. A New York Times poll April 8 showed that 43% of Americans say they have been following events "very closely." A banned radio station from Belgrade, B92, managed to get 15 million hits on its Web site in just 10 days, according to the editor.
 
National TV networks and big-city newspapers should be embarrassed to run wire and get beat by one-man human rights offices on a story that involves U.S. combat in Europe.
 
Readers can do their part by seeking out coverage from organizations that have a track record covering the Balkans (start with OJR's partial list) and checking sites, like Mother Jones' revamped MoJo Wire, that show intellect and vigor in discussing this hellishly complicated issue.
 
The quality is out there; it's an open question whether it has a welcome home in the mainstream anywhere other than The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and CNN.
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.

 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


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Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review
over to human rights organizations, where their new bosses want them to write about Yugoslavia every day.
 
[S]tringers by their nature have a built-in incentive to exaggerate the importance of a story.
Ironically, the shrinking foreign news hole comes at a time when there are more U.S. reporters than ever living abroad. Most, though, either work for the exponentially expanding business wires (Reuters, Bloomberg, Bridge, Dow Jones) or for the scores of new English-language newspapers springing up from Pakistan to the Ukraine.
 
Editors and publishers who insist that the public just doesn't care about international news should look again. CNN.com's traffic went up 963% after the bombing started. A New York Times poll April 8 showed that 43% of Americans say they have been following events "very closely." A banned radio station from Belgrade, B92, managed to get 15 million hits on its Web site in just 10 days, according to the editor.
 
National TV networks and big-city newspapers should be embarrassed to run wire and get beat by one-man human rights offices on a story that involves U.S. combat in Europe.
 
Readers can do their part by seeking out coverage from organizations that have a track record covering the Balkans (start with OJR's partial list) and checking sites, like Mother Jones' revamped MoJo Wire, that show intellect and vigor in discussing this hellishly complicated issue.
 
The quality is out there; it's an open question whether it has a welcome home in the mainstream anywhere other than The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and CNN.
 
What do you think? Tell us on the OJR Forums.
 


Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


[ Frontpage ] [ Features ] [ Back to Top ]
Copyright 1999 Online Journalism Review