German foreign correspondence Expensive, thus Superfluous?

Correspondent

You have to be able to afford foreign correspondents. Or want to. More and more German media houses are making cuts in their foreign branches. This has consequences for the quality of reporting.

When the Crimean crisis finally broke in February 2014, it caught the German media unprepared. No one had anticipated the conflict over the Ukrainian peninsula. Soon there were special broadcasts and live ticker on the subject. And again and again one man was interviewed who seemed predestined to explain the current situation in the Ukraine to Germany: Vitali Klitschko. The Ukrainian boxing world champion is very popular in Germany, speaks German and is at home in the subject. But he is also involved in a conflict of interest: Klitschko is an opposition leader in his Ukrainian homeland. His view is therefore not objective.

Only a few weeks later the German media began to discuss the reporting of the Crimean crisis. It has been criticized as stereotyped, superficial and lop-sided. Nuanced presentations of the complex conflict are sorely missed. Why were they lacking? Nearly all correspondents were flown in a hurry to the flash point Ukraine. Some from Warsaw and Moscow, where a few have their offices. Others from Germany. Without on-the-spot knowledge of the development and background of the conflict, they are supposed to send back reports and analyses every hour. These specially flown-in journalists, says Marc Engelhardt of the Weltreporter.net network, are “parachute reporters, who can hardly report more than commonplaces”.

“Until the fighting finally begins”

Engelhardt criticizes that foreign correspondence and so foreign correspondent positions are more and more affected by cuts. “For many publishers, foreign correspondents seem to be dispensable – until, for example, the fighting finally begins in the Ukraine and everyone asks why developments hadn’t been noticed earlier.” Yet it is precisely here that such an attitude is “particularly negligent, because the general public and increasingly also decision-makers lack the necessary, complex knowledge about what is happening beyond the borders of Germany”, says Engelhardt.The coverage of the Crimean crisis is an apt example because it was exactly Russia and its surrounding area that several media deemed some time ago a region of negligible interest – not at all the imminent flash point of world politics. The business newspaper Handelsblatt, the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung had all lately cut correspondent positions in the region.

Foreign correspondents are expensive

But why do publishers particularly like to cut foreign correspondents? “Some correspondent offices costs a million euros a year and more”, says Lutz Mükke of the Institute of Practical Journalism and Communication Research in Leipzig. Therefore especially those media that are under great cost pressure seek to economize on foreign correspondents: “the supra-regional print media are continuing to cut positions”, explains Mükke, who is the editor of the international journalism magazine Message. The trend has hit regional media even more strongly. While private radio hardly invests in foreign branches, “the public broadcasters remain one of the staunchest supports of German foreign correspondence.” But this is not sufficient. “To do justice to its social mission in a democracy, journalism must maintain its own analytical capacity. Otherwise PR and propaganda will be heaped all over us”, says Mükke. Nevertheless, German foreign correspondents still fare well in comparison with those of other nations such as the United States or Great Britain “because”, according to Mükke, “British and American media have drastically reduced their network of correspondents”.

Idealism needed

The fewer permanent correspondents abroad German media can afford, the more journalists seek to establish themselves as freelance foreign correspondents. Some of them have joined together in the network Weltreporter.net. “The journalists in Weltreporter form a kind of virtual global reporters office: we help each other and give each other support”, says Marc Engelhardt. Including moral support, which might sometimes be needed in view of the uncertain financial and social situation of a freelance reporter in foreign parts. Still, Engelhardt is happy in his choice of profession: “You won’t get rich in this job, especially not as a freelance, and long nights are as much part of it as an occasional overnight stay in the bush. But you experience not only the most amazing stories, you also get to tell them. What could be better?” In the work of a foreign correspondent, it appears, idealism plays a big, and probably increasingly important, role.