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Without foreign coverage, we miss more than news

A lack of reporters posted abroad hampers our ability to grasp crises.

By Andrew Stroehlein / May 18, 2009

Doha, Qatar

For years now, those of us working in and around international media have grown used to hearing about slashed foreign news budgets – an overseas bureau cut here, yet another correspondent post dropped there.

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The shrinking of news from the far reaches of the globe is a problem only partially addressed by a few financially constrained news agencies and a couple of hopeful media upstarts with untried business models or limited audiences.

We do not need to wait for something more to hit us over the head to understand the implications of these changes. Two recent situations show us exactly what the world will be like when there are no regular foreign correspondents left.

The first is Somalia, where Western news coverage, particularly in the United States, has been extraordinarily shallow during the past two decades. When attention returned to the crisis last month, it was because of the capture of a US vessel by Somali pirates. Amid hero-worship and chest-thumping, the American media machine seemed to swell with pride that a new president with the world's largest military at his disposal could defeat a handful of lightly armed thugs.

Yet, few seemed to grasp the most basic fact of the story: Piracy is a symptom, not the disease, and lawlessness off the coast of Somalia will continue as long as anarchy is allowed to remain on land.

Hardly any news outlets covered the difficult struggle of new Somali President Sheikh Sharif and his attempts to reach out to radicals, which give rise to some limited optimism. Greater international support – and attention – for his efforts would be more illuminating than another facile skull-and-crossbones story, because ultimately only a stable Somalia is going to end piracy and its potential export of extremism.

Unfortunately, the danger on the ground makes Somalia extremely difficult to cover for foreign journalists, so we were stuck with stories of tangential importance, written like Hollywood film scripts from editorial offices thousands of miles away.

Another crisis unfolding mostly not before our eyes has been Sri Lanka, where in the past few months, the situation in the north- east became desperate for some 200,000 civilians trapped in an ever-shrinking "safe zone" between their government, which has been shelling them, and the cultlike LTTE (Tamil Tiger) rebels, who have been using equally lethal force to prevent them from escaping.

A mass slaughter of civilians got under way as the Army's noose gradually tightened around them. Yet, even as deaths reached into the thousands and those injured topped 10,000, and even when video was available of the tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives, few in the US even heard there was a problem.

Despite a government ban on journalists working in the conflict zone, some international broadcast outlets have been trying to cover the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka: Al Jazeera English, BBC World Service radio, and BBC World News come immediately to mind. But try to find this enormous catastrophe on American TV – good luck.

In both cases, a lack of correspondents on the ground produced media ignorance.

Of course, with Somalia and Sri Lanka, the obstacles to reporters covering the stories are larger than staffing cuts abroad: Issues include government restrictions and security concerns.