News organizations exaggerate the size of their overseas newsrooms

Posted on June 10, 2012

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The Washington Post has 16 foreign “bureaus,” and 12 of them consist of just a single reporter, according to the newspaper’s website. The four remaining bureaus all consist of two journalists. Is the Post using the word bureau a bit loosely? One Post reporter, Sudarsan Raghavan in Nairobi, is listed as the paper’s “bureau chief in Africa.” Raghavan is the chief of a bureau of one in Kenya. For the continent of Africa.

A 2011 report in the American Journalism Review found that the number of full time foreign correspondents employed by US newspapers declined steeply since 2003. But news outfits that have slashed budgets for foreign reporting are nonetheless eager to present themselves as global news organizations. This is why NBC will at times feature a reporter in its London bureau discussing events in Athens or even Iraq. The correspondent might as well be in Hoboken. “Many news outlets that have no foreign staff are eager to pretend that they do,” former International Herald Tribune editor Mort Rosenblum wrote in Little Bunch of Madmen, a book about foreign reporting. News organizations want audiences to believe they have the resources to scour the globe, even when it isn’t true.

The word bureau should be retired when used to describe a single employee. I am not the Columbia Journalism Review’s bureau chief in Orono, Maine. I’m a columnist for CJR and I happen to live in New England. The use of the word bureau to describe a single correspondent in Islamabad or Buenos Aires is meant to trick audiences into believing the news organization funds a sprawling newsroom in that location. Years ago, many news organizations did have big newsrooms in foreign countries. Today, though, budgets have been cut and priorities have shifted. The Los Angeles Times had 24 foreign correspondents in 2003, according to the AJR report, a roster which fell to 13 by 2011.

Today, The Los Angeles Times has ten foreign “bureaus,” and eight of them consist of just one person. The Times’s website does not, however, list any reporters manning single-person bureaus as “chiefs.” In December, Al Jazeera English announced the founding of a Chicago bureau, staffed with one journalist (former ABC reporter John Hendren). Of course, the founding and maintaining of foreign news facilities is something we should celebrate, but news organizations should never use flashy language to exaggerate their global reach. Al Jazeera hired a Chicago correspondent in order to expand its 2012 US presidential election coverage, and this is a good thing, but the organization has not built a branch campus in the Windy City.

*[Editor’s note: This paragraph was amended as of 4/24/2012. More details below.] I’m aware that the difference between being called a “bureau chief” rather than “correspondent” at some news organizations is similar to the difference between assistant and associate professors at universities: the coronation often nets greater job security and a bump in salary (and in some cases demands greater responsibilities). Still, journalists are supposed to use clear language. Period. A bureau in one’s bedroom is a chest of multiple drawers, and a furniture peddler who refers to a banker’s box as a bureau is being dishonest.

Some news organizations are more straightforward about their foreign operations: GlobalPost, for example. Its Cairo-based reporter, Erin Cunningham, is listed as “Senior Correspondent for the Middle East and North Africa,” which concedes that she has massive ground to cover, but at least doesn’t falsely imply she’s the chief of a bustling GlobalPost office in Egypt. Nichole Sobecki is listed as “covering Turkey for GlobalPost,” not as the chief of a bureau in Istanbul. The Christian Science Monitor similarly lists its foreign reporters as, simply, staff reporters in a foreign locale.

Contrary to contemporary speculation, foreign reporting is by no means dead. The Associated Press still has an army of reporters throughout the world, and NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg, and The Wall Street Journal all have vibrant, and in some cases expanding, operations overseas. Al Jazeera has a global editorial staff in the thousands. Nonetheless, many US newspapers and television networks have downsized their global operations, and they shouldn’t use embellishments to suggest otherwise.

Correction: This article originally included the following line: “The New York Times’s bio of Rachel Donadio lists her as the paper’s chief of a one-woman bureau in Rome.” The New York Times informs us that the paper’s operation in Rome includes at least one full time stringer and a reporter shared with the International Herald Tribune. The relevant sentence has been removed, and its removal has been marked in the text. CJR regrets the error.

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