International news coverage after 9/11

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2011 - 6:08 PM
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An early morning subway commuter reads a newspaper with a front page announcing news of an al-Qaida terror threat, Friday, Sept. 9, 2011 in New York.

Photo: Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

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Online, on-air and on paper, news organizations are offering a wave of retrospective reporting on the 10 years since 9/11.

Given the gravity of that day, and the daily impact 9/11 has had on the country in the decade since, the media is right to reflect. But what about looking ahead?

Americans need news and information that will help them understand how today's tumult might play out over the next decade.

The Arab Spring protest movement flowering in North Africa and the Middle East is the most consequential regional freedom movement since communism's collapse in Eastern and Central Europe a generation ago.

But will the new leaders replacing repressive regimes be their nations' George Washingtons or Osama bin Ladens? North of the Mediterranean, will Europe's overleveraged capitalism do what communism did -- collapse governments?

And if so, will radicals rise in response to the austerity measures many of their leaders have imposed?

And a continent away, will ostensibly communist China continue to teach a thing or two about capitalism, or does it, too, face a bursting bubble and destabilizing social upheaval?

The domestic implications of these and many other international inquiries could be profound. Already globalism is an even stronger force than on 9/11.

Wall Street seems like a thoroughfare that connects directly to Asian and European stock exchanges. And politically, a rising tide of isolationism, once isolated to the political fringes, is increasingly integrated into the political debate.

The questions keep coming. But there are fewer news organizations committing the reporting resources to ask, let alone answer, them.

Despite what it looked like on Sept. 12, 2001 -- that the newly launched "global war on terror" immediately implied a Cold War-like commitment from society, government, the military and the media -- U.S. media organizations seem less able, and less willing, to invest in international coverage.

The inward turn by the news media came despite the decade's technological transformations, which mostly focused on individualization and portability (Facebook and iPods, to name just two).

It was also the result of business model transformations, as Craigslist cut into classified ad revenue and 20 newspapers shut down foreign bureaus over the last decade, according to the American Journalism Review. (The same report detailed commensurate cutbacks by broadcast networks.)

But it was also the result of societal transformations. Interest in international stories has seemingly declined along with coverage: As I reported in a February column, stories with a foreign dateline represented only 12.7 percent of 2010 network newscasts, according to the Tyndall Report, which monitors ABC, CBS and NBC.

And despite 2010 being the deadliest year yet in Afghanistan -- the war spawned by 9/11 -- it garnered only 4 percent of overall coverage, according to the Pew Center for People and the Press, which also calculated that Iraq dropped to a scant 1 percent of the news narrative.

Sure, there were news bursts during the decade that pierced the media malaise: Terrorist strikes in England and elsewhere; an emotional debate, led by Jon Stewart, on funding first responders' medical care, and the killing of Bin Laden, to name a few.

But the declining investment in international reporting suggests that press and public priorities are elsewhere. This should not be the case, and news outlets should shoulder the responsibility to reverse the decline in foreign coverage.

Continual episodes of media overkill (Casey Anthony's court case and the courtship of Kim Kardashian, for starters) suggest that while budgets may be down, journalistic judgment has declined just as much for some media organizations.

The best of the 9/11 retrospectives are respectful and even healing. We should honor the victims, condemn the villains, and forever thank those who lost their lives fighting fires at ground zero or in firefights in Afghanistan.

But we should also honor 9/11 by reducing the chances that anything like it ever occurs again. One important tool is reliable and deep coverage of international issues -- the kind of news and analysis that can help build the bipartisan consensus that's necessary to take action.

That's what the news media should focus on in the second decade after 9/11.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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