Feb. 3, 2005–A unique perspective on journalism and the free press–Whayne Dillehay

Dillehay offers unique perspective on journalism and the free press
by Carol Sturgulewski

To a room full of journalism professionals, the numbers were both startling and enlightening:

  • U.S. television coverage of international news has fallen from 45 percent in the 1970s, to 12 percent today.
  • Of some 1,400 daily newspapers in the U.S., only 20 have overseas bureaus.
  • Aside from coverage of the war in Iraq, the average daily newspaper devotes just two percent of its news space to foreign affairs.

“Something is rotten in journalism today, but instead of complaining about it, we need to do something about it,” said Whayne Dillehay, Atwood Professor of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

At the February APW meeting, Dillehay spoke on “The Sorry State of Global Journalism: Some Solutions.” He reflected on the causes and effects of decreased international news coverage by U.S. media. Dillehay, who came to Anchorage in 2003, spent 15 years as senior vice president and executive director of the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C.

The non-profit center provides training for journalists and media organizations around the world, especially those in emerging democracies. It also offers fellowships and professional internships abroad for U.S. journalists.

His position gave Dillehay a unique perspective into both U.S. coverage of foreign news, and the development of a free press in other parts of the world.

Some 62 percent of the world’s nations, and 83 percent of the population, have press systems that are not free. Barriers range from restricted information to government control to various levels of censorship. Some of the nations not considered free are surprising to most Americans, Dillehay said; for example, Italy’s press is considered only partly free because the prime minister owns many television stations. Most of the rest of Western Europe is a “bright spot” on the globe of free press, Dillehay said, with 23 of 25 countries ranked as free–and 15 ahead of the U.S.

“The dimmest regions are the Middle East and North Africa,” he said. With some exceptions in Israel and Kuwait, “the rest are at the bottom of the list.” But in Europe, laws protect against concentration of ownership in the media, and protect freedom of speech. “Scandinavian countries are very involved in helping train journalists around the world,” he said, dwarfing U.S. contributions
to the effort.

The U.S. has an ever-broadening interest in other parts of the globe, Dillehay said. The Internet, booming imports, corporate outsourcing, college study abroad, military troops stationed overseas and other factors bind us ever closer to other countries. Yet at the same time, Dillehay said, virtually every television network except CNN has cut back on overseas coverage.

“Latin American coverage is almost non-existent,” he said. “Fox and MSNBC were created with almost no attention to foreign news.”

The biggest problem, of course, is money. By the time news organizations cover the costs of salaries, travel, insurance, equipment and other needs, it can cost $150,000-$200,000 a year to field a foreign correspondent overseas, Dillehay said. At the same time, he noted, the news business is one of the most profitable in the world today, and should be capable of doing more to educate audiences.

Dillehay suggests news organizations take smaller bites of the global apple. Instead of attempting to field an overseas news bureau, he suggests media work at localizing international news–finding ways to make stories from far away relevant in U.S. communities. He praised fellowships which allow print journalists and photographers to go anywhere in the world for three weeks, and bring back stories relevant to their hometown audiences.

He cited a reporter-photographer team from Toledo, Ohio that went to Spain for a few weeks, and brought back stories on everything from related families, to similarities in business and industry.

There are bright spots; technological advances are making it possible to cover worldwide news better than ever. “I see signs that America is wakening to the need to know more about the world,” he said. The Internet, digital photography, satellites and more help make the job easier for globe-trotting journalists. “My optimism for the future of journalism does outweigh my pessimism, but it’s only a few steps ahead,” he said.

Wayne Dillehay

Wayne Dillehay