With its 196 countries (195 + Taiwan) and internet, the world has many news to share. And that can give a hard time to journalists. Different cultures, different languages, different behaviors, it can all be confusing for the journalist covering a story but also for the reader, viewer or listener of international news.
Because there is a lot to consider when covering international news, mistakes are made by reporters and news organizations… over simplifications, sensationalization, misinterpretations, translation errors, so many things can go wrong while covering news abroad.
In this paper I will try to analyze the current situation of international news coverage by giving some examples. I will also explain why mistakes are easy to make, leading to ethical issues such as a lack of accuracy and causing harm.
in the United States, journalism is experiencing important financial problems. So news organizations tend to cover more of what the audience wants to hear about, and that’s local news. People care more about what happened two streets away from their home than in some country across the world. Which is understandable. But what happens in the world can have an impact on what is happening locally. That’s why most news organizations have not given up on international news.
The challenge is to keep the audience reading, watching or listening to the newscast during the international sections.
As an intern at PRI’s The World, I got a chance to chat with Clark Boyd, editor and reporter for the radio show.
“We’re telling uninterested audiences stories that they fundamentally don’t understand but there’s an element to it. So I think, we try really hard to walk a fine line between dumbing it down so much that you think to yourself, ‘why do we even put this on the air’ but also making it accessible. I think this is a big tension,” Boyd said.
If The World is trying to find angles that Americans will care about, other news organizations will prefer oversimplifying the events.
“The presumption that audiences are disinterested in news that doesn’t directly affect them ‘leads the media to oversimplify international news events’ and results in international news items that report foreign news in a one-dimensional, less complex manner so to gain audience appeal,” Global Media Journal paper on international coverage on page 5.
Even if a 2004 Pew Research Center study shows that more and more people are following international news, it is still a minority of news consumers. That same study also shows that if there is no link with the United States, American audiences aren’t likely to follow international matters. In the contrary, the Iraq war involving a large number of Americans, was highly followed.
“International stories that are perceived to have little direct impact on American lives and security attract scant interest from the public,” the study pointed out on page 28.
As a result, international news are not very diversified. According to the Global Media Journal, media only cover war, violence, Presidents shaking other Presidents’ hands and natural disasters. And that gives a poor view of the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, alternative coverage exists.
PRI’s The World definitely covers the topics previously mentioned but also tries to diversify its coverage. I recently on a story about beer in South Sudan or on the arrival of the burger restaurant Five Guys, in Paris, France.
David Guttenfelder, photographer, chose to show a new side of North Korea through a series of photographs on Instagram and for the New York Times.
These two example prove that it is possible to show the world, even a country like North Korea, the way it truly is.
Other initiatives on social media like Twitter recently started due to a despondency of people living in Africa about the inaccurate or incomplete coverage made of their country or even continent.
With #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, people from all over Africa began to post photos of their everyday life and their environment. The phenomenon went pretty viral on Twitter and shows what we (rest of the world) never see in the media… Happy people in beautiful and peaceful places.
Inaccuracy by generalization is another problem… #SomeoneTellCNN started after CNN qualified Kenya as a “hotbed of terror.” Kenyans didn’t agree with that and decided to show the world what most parts of Kenya really looks like.
But CNN was not the only one to make ethical mistakes in the past few months. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Fox News was also pointed out for using pictures and maps that have nothing to do with what they are talking about. Fox News talked about “no go zones” around Paris, which don’t exist and Yann Barthès, reporter for Le Petit Journal, explained all the mistakes the Fox News reporter in Paris made. For more details, watch the video (2’20”).
Translation can also be part of inaccuracy. Reporters cannot possibly speak every language of every countries they are going to.
Boyd said that when he went to Morocco or Greece, he didn’t speak the language and had to use the help of fixers who would quickly translate what the interviewee is saying. And that is common practice among foreign correspondents.
“The reason why this is of significance here is that the fixer’s summary can act as the translator’s source text, the danger being that fixers can give journalists the gist of what others say, rather than being obliged to closely translate or interpret their utterances (Palmer 2007, 19). However, there are no guarantees that the information provided by fixers is accurate. This is because, through possible exaggeration or omission of important detail, there is the potential for them to consciously or unconsciously put a particular slant on their account, thereby portraying their own ideologies in their spoken or written account of events,” in The Role of Translation in the Production of International Print News of the University of Auckland on page 158.
So this raises the importance of transparency. If the reporter can only base the information on one translator or fixer, there is a chance of inaccuracy, so it is important to notify it to the audience.
Another aspect of translation would be when the interviewee speaks some English but maybe not enough to make his or her point.
“It’s always a judgment call and there are always people that are going to be right on the line. But if we feel that somebody is not able to express exactly what they mean or what they want to say in a second language (…) I have done interviews for pieces in the past, where we’d start in English and it was clear that they weren’t able to say what they wanted to say and I would almost insist that they switch [back to their native language] because at the end of the day, have them saying exactly what they want to say. And I would do the translation after,” Boyd said.
Boyd said that the whole process of verifying a translation is especially tough when on deadline. It is nonetheless very important to make sure all information are accurate.
I feel like if reporters and editors were paying more attention to all the points I touched in this paper, the international news coverage would be more accurate and fair and thus more reliable. Diversifying and telling the complete story are also important points to give the audience a better sense of the world.
I am well aware that the means and time to do some good reporting are challenging, but some news organizations succeed in it. That proves that it is possible.