Though it insults our vanity to say so, TV is the most important medium on the planet. Most people get the images, impressions and ideas which shape their worldviews from television. How TV covers international news, then, has an enormous impact on our ability to act as global citizens, to understand and respond clearly to global crises and opportunities.
So it really isn't helping things that TV coverage of international news really sucks.
Report after report has been written, showing the percentage of time spent on international news dropping pretty steadily from a high in the mid-70s to today, across the developed world. Europeans do a somewhat better job than Americans, but essentially neither cover any news of substance in the developing world. Take away wars, climate disasters and train wrecks, and the developing world essentially fades completely from our sight.
Can we do better?
That was the question taken up by the Jamco online international symposium International Reporting by TV Media - Public Good and National Interest. With folks attending from the BBC, NHK and CNN, as well as some sharp academics and media critics, there are a bunch of perspectives worth reading here.
In particular, former CNN reporter Rebecca MacKinnon (who blogs here), writes a scathing and fascinating exploration of the business-driven decisions which help keep Americans so ignorant of the workings of the world around us:
"If one believes that the role of the American media should be to inform the citizens of a democracy about the realities of major foreign policy problems so that those citizens can make informed judgments about their government's ability to conduct international relations, then one is likely to conclude that we failed to do our job. ...In this essay I was asked to discuss how American global TV media balances the global public good with American national interests. However it is important to understand another, much more important factor that trumps both the global public good and national interest. That factor is commercial interest."
It is that commercial interest -- the vast rivers of money that successful television networks generate -- that's both killing good journalism and stifling competition (like the admirable World Link idea).
I share Worldchanger Ethan Zuckerman's hope that the blogosphere can become a lever to move news organizations to cover more of what's really important in the world. I share the hope of others that the Net can allow wholly new forms of international journalism to emerge and replace television altogether. But for the foreseeable future, reality is what shows on the screen, and we need to figure out ways of hacking that reality, quickly.
The "commercial interest" cited in the post results in a media that restricts itself to items of mass interest. Even if they were less commercial in their motivations, asking the major news outlets to select the items for general consumption will always be unsatisfying. Terms like "the global public good" are notoriously hard to define; it's usually best to make the reporting available and let readers define what is news the ought to know. The blog world seems well suited to reaching smaller groups of interested readers with the news and opinion that the mass media ignore. None of this has any real effect, however, if these blogs are not read or are not there at all. The first step for parties interested in fostering a "new form of international journalism" is to identify bloggers in the developing world who write engagingly in English (if you're trying to reach an American audience) and who understand the American reader well enough make events and ideas relevant to the American frame of mind.
At the moment, however, it seems that there are few bloggers who are writing for an international audience, except those in Europe or areas of intense focus like Iraq. If they are out there, we need a better way to find them. Perhaps WorldChanging can collect links submitted by readers.
If these international bloggers can make a case that what what they are reporting is "really important in the world" They'll get the attention of the blog readers and eventually the mass media, especially after the blog community has fleshed out the issue for them. But this case must be made. Only a few international stories at any one time, will achieve, or truly deserve, the attention of the general American public, but most every area of the world will find a dedicated group of interested readers who will keep knowledge of their issues in circulation.
Part of that is simply the fact we take less time to run through the news in total these days. I remember when the news would ramble on and on story after story in detail. Now its much shorter and repeated many many times over.
I go to functions at Harvard where I get to see media bigwigs up close and maybe even ask a question of them. My experience of these people is that they wear blinders 24/7, smart as they may be. The blinders are made of money and ratings and conventional wisdom. They see everything as a "story" or a game and have no conception of the flesh and blood costs on the ground.
Rick Kaplan, newish head of MSNBC, has come through a couple of times. The first time when he'd just taken over the operation. I gave him two of my ideas, use an Earth from space graphic, real-time if possible, as wallpaper and do a weekly or monthly scorecard of all the wars and insurrections around the world. He wrote down the Earth from space idea in his notebook but I ain't seen it yet on the T and V.