Guest Post: Foreign Based Reporters in America are an Underutilized Public Diplomacy Resource

By Mitchell Polman

According to a report released earlier this year by the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism, 1,490 foreign correspondents were accredited to the Foreign Press Center in Washington as of October 2008. That is an almost ten-fold increase since 1968. Foreign accredited journalists represent nearly 800 media outlets from 113 countries and territories. Journalists from Africa, the Middle East, and China account for much of the increase. From a public diplomacy standpoint, the foreign journalists working in Washington are underutilized. The State Department needs to work on developing ways to bolster the ability of foreign journalists to get the most out of their U.S. experience.

The State Department, to its credit, does operate press centers in Washington and New York that assist foreign journalists with briefings, information, and other tools that enable them to keep track of policy debates and develop contacts. The Bush administration closed a third Foreign Press Center that was in Los Angeles.

Getting information, however, is not the biggest problem that foreign journalists face. In conversations that I've had with many foreign reporters I have learned that the single biggest difficulty that a foreign reporter based in the U.S. has is financial. The cost of living in Washington is exorbitant for journalists that come from poor countries. Many foreign journalists spend time working odd jobs when they'd prefer to be reporting or learning about America. This presents other problems as journalists who come to the U.S. on the special "I" visas that they need to work here are in a legal limbo when it comes to taking other employment. I have spoken with expert immigration lawyers who have told me that they honestly can't say if a journalist who has an "I" visa can work legally in a job that is unrelated to journalism. The "I" visa system was simply not designed with journalists from Third World countries in mind.

The financial obstacles also impacts foreign reporting on America because it greatly limits what reporters can cover. It's not that difficult for foreign journalists to cover Washington policy debates regarding their country or region of origin. It is also easy to cover the visit of an important dignitary from the home country. However, when it comes to reporting on "the real America" -- its people, its lifestyle, and its culture -- then the financial obstacles kick in. One East European journalist that I talked to told me that the only way he gets to report on American life outside of Washington is if he combines work with a vacation. Journalists from even poorer countries often find the cheapest way to travel to visit friends in other cities, which almost always means New York, and report stories that way. Even foreign journalists that work for large media outlets usually lack the ability to hire "fixers" to assist them in assembling a story and explaining the cultural nuances that are often involved. The result is that a large share of stories written by journalists from poor countries are focused on the immigrant community from their homeland or on the visiting singer or artistic ensemble from the home country. Those that do focus on American society may be superficial in nature. The result is that their audience gains little understanding and insight into American society.

The State Department does help organize trips outside of Washington during political campaign season, but media outlets are still expected to shoulder the costs. The State Department also pays to bring foreign TV and radio journalists to the U.S. to film documentaries (and in the interest of full disclosure, I have worked on those projects). However, it does not fund similar projects for journalists who are accredited to Washington.

If we want foreign journalists to get the most out of their American experience then the State Department needs to think of what it can do to improve their ability to cover America. Perhaps it can start holding quarterly grant competitions for foreign journalists from TV, radio and print who have story ideas that would take them beyond Washington. The grant can be used to cover travel expenses and hire a producer if need be. We should be encouraging foreign journalists to get out more and providing them with some of the resources that they need to do it.

Realistically speaking, there is little that the State Department can do to close the economic gap between a journalist's country and the U.S. It can, however, work to clarify the rules of the "I" visa and make it easier for foreign journalists to supplement their income in legal ways. The State Department, of course, can't be in the business of supplementing a foreign journalists' salary. It is, however, in our interest to make it possible for them to spend as much time actually working as journalists in America as is feasible.

Finally, our public diplomacy officers overseas should be engaging in a dialogue with editors and media outlets about these topics. At the Columbia University School of Journalism I met a dean who is originally from India. He told me that he had quit reporting on the U.S. because his editors in India always wanted an "India angle" to every story. If it didn't involve Indians they weren't interested because they assumed their readers wouldn't be. He felt that his readers in India were getting an incomplete picture of America as a result. I've heard similar complaints from other foreign journalists. Reporting on émigrés and émigré life is important and useful, but enhancing understanding between peoples requires stepping outside the familiar cultural boundaries to report on what the audience may consider different or exotic. Our public diplomacy officers would be doing not just America, but doing the world a service by encouraging journalists to take that approach.

Mitchell Polman is a contractor on public diplomacy programs for the Department of State.

Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and published here to further the discourse on America's global engagement and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.

[Editor: I have (unsuccessfully) sought funding for a symposium on engaging and empowering non-US media operating both in the US and abroad, primarily in areas of interest to the US. The topics include how (and if) the US Government should assist foreign media covering the US (e.g. facilitating access, visas), operating locally abroad (e.g. providing training, tools, and technology), and the impact and utility of “now media”. Mitch has helped me in this effort. –MCA]