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Global events, from terrorism to avian flu, have local impacts: local-only focus cheats readers.

When news media executives speak with unconvincing assertiveness about the importance of devoting more attention to local news and commentary--and less to international--I have only two words to share: Benazir Bhutto.

Few events in recent memory illustrate better the need to understand global phenomena than the complicated assassination of the former prime minister of Pakistan last December. At the same time, her death--which prompted confusion and blank expressions, including from some U.S. presidential candidates--helped expose how deeply the American news media's growing estrangement from the international realm leaves readers and viewers ill-prepared for the surprises, tragedies, opportunities, and challenges of the future.

Quite frankly, any news medium that de-emphasizes international news and commentary does itself and its audience a major disservice. In 2008--more than ever--Americans need a steady dose of information, perspective, and insight about the world. They live in an increasingly shrinking, interdependent environment, where many issues neither respect nor pause at political or geographic borders. Whether the topic is terrorism, climate change, immigration, pandemics, environmental pollution, globalization, human rights, economic development--the list goes on--its effects travel with abandon.

Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador who now serves as dean of the International Center at the University of Florida, elaborated, "9/11 demonstrated that terrorism was a threat that could affect every American and not just something that happened 'over there.' Every outbreak of Ebola, SARS, and other diseases shows the same thing. If we want to react in some way other than a show of panic and fear, there has to be a better understanding of these problems before they take place."

Also, it is hardly enough for U.S. news media editors to say, "Well, we'll cover those issues with news and commentary from wire services." As much as I respect the wires, global matters affect communities in different ways, making it essential to have at least some local specialists who can explain, interpret, and write about them.

In 2001, after another dismaying period of decreasing emphasis on international issues and commentary, 9/11 supposedly sobered the U.S. news media. Never again, editors said, in numbers too significant to ignore, would they give scant attention to global matters that can reach out and touch Americans where they live. I remember and nostalgically relish one article in particular titled "The Future of Foreign News" that appeared in The American Editor, the journal of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Written by Michael Parks, the director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, the piece pointed out various news-media failures.

One shortcoming was how U.S. newspaper, magazine, and broadcast executives had neglected to "provide coverage that might have forewarned Americans of the intense hostility the country faced from militant Islamic extremists and of the threats posed by international terrorism." Another was that they had shirked their responsibility in a broader manner, that of "persuading people to read what they needed to know and understand about the world even as globalization tightened the ties Americans have with countries once regarded as remote."

Following the attacks, many U.S. editors vowed to improve their global coverage--and did. One challenge they encountered, according to the Parks article, was that "many people do not know enough about world events to understand the news as it is presented and that stories often fail to make clear the events' relevance."

All the more reason, though, to keep up the coverage. Jonathan Gurwitz, an editorial writer and columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and chair of the NCEW International Affairs Committee, said, "Opinion-page journalists face two contradictory trends: the rising pace of globalization on the one hand, and the downward spiral of the newspaper industry on the other. One trend means events in far-away places have greater impact in our local communities. The other means journalists are under increasing pressure to 'write local' and ignore international or even national subjects."

"It's not hard to see the contradiction," Gurwitz continued. "Whether you're talking about tainted pet food from China, immigrant workers from Mexico, terrorist threats from the Middle East, or $100-a-barrel oil, what happens beyond our borders is having a greater impact in all of our communities." He believes that newspapers, and especially the opinion pages, have an obligation to explain these issues to readers and show they should be concerned, even if it does not necessarily affect their pocketbooks. "Those editorials and commentary pieces need to be written every bit as much in Peoria and San Antonio as in New York and Washington," Gurwitz said.

Yet, within a short period of time after 9/11, international news and commentary had once again begun to recede from U.S. news media, forced aside by an exaggerated preoccupation with local news. Let me be clear: I am as interested in local coverage as anyone, and I demand it from the news media in my region that seek my attention. But increasingly, international matters are local matters and vice versa.


Given that, I was encouraged by the comments that Samuel Zell, the new owner of the Tribune Co., made when he completed his takeover in December of last year. He emphasized that the current rage for "local, local" news coverage by metropolitan dailies is not the only road to success. National and international news are in demand, too, Zell said, and Tribune papers should deliver it. Indeed.

I applaud such sentiments; they are not sufficiently evident in the U.S. news business today. In fact, some news media are not only de-emphasizing international news and commentary, they are punishing editors who rightly defend such content.

Consider the case of Susan Albright, until last fall the editorial page editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and a former NCEW president. A veteran of the news business, she had been routinely lauded for her effectiveness. Former Vice President Walter Mondale described her as "brilliant, informed, courageous, tough, direct, and nice," as well as someone who oversaw editorial pages that commanded national and international respect. Unfortunately, Albright's vision conflicted with that of the Star Tribune's new publisher and chair, Chris Harte, who desired more locally focused editorial pages. With that, Albright was history; the loss was as much the Star Tribune's and its readers' as hers.

American news media should stop this ill-advised, short-sighted behavior, especially in an era when they are waging a titanic battle for relevance.

How can they persuasively argue that they are an emerging industry in transition--rather than a declining one--if they shy away from providing what people require to adapt to a rapidly changing, uncertain world; that is, a balanced supply of local, national, and international news and commentary?

How can they realistically hope to expand their ambitions in light of the new global realities--rather than restrict them--if they selectively minimize an entire category of critical issues, the international one, that matters more with each passing year?

And how can they seriously live up to their responsibility to inform and educate--rather than compromise those worthy aims--if they accept the weak logic that only local news and commentary matter to readers and viewers in an era where globalization has made the world a very small place?

John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida. He writes a weekly foreign-affairs column that is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Readers may contact him at

Gabriela Othon, a research specialist, and Abeer Abdalla, a scholar and graduate student in mass communications, both of the University of Central Florida, contributed to this piece.
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Title Annotation:news agencies
Author:Bersia, John
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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