BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. For the past few months, American media have done what they rarely do, focus on events beyond our shores – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Japan. But this week our national attention returned to battles over budget cutting, birthers and Donald Trump. The appetite for overseas stories appears to have dried up. Mark Jurkowitz at the PEW Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism says that a few weeks back Libya and Japan made up more than 40 percent of the news, an extraordinary number. But now, even as fresh horrors rain down on the people of Libya and Japan, the American media look elsewhere for leads. Perhaps, says Jurkowitz, that’s because events out there have become both more complicated and less new, a lethal combination for coverage.
MARK JURKOWITZ: In a strange way there’s kind of a new normal with both of those crises. There was this real explosion of Libyan coverage, but after a while it became apparent that this is now a grinding civil war that wasn't going to be solved, as I think some of the news media thought, as soon as the NATO planes started bombing. It’s almost gruesome to say it’s held into a plateau when civilians are being indiscriminately shelled and there’s so much bloodshed. And the same thing with Japan. It too has kind of settled into this kind of ongoing tide of bad news, but not necessarily dramatic or shocking news that’s gonna continue to command the news media’s attention, particularly at a time of dwindling resources.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many civilians have been endangered in Libya and journalists endangered. Obviously, journalists ought not to be singled out. They tend to be by the media. Do you think that may change the coverage?
MARK JURKOWITZ: We should say that, first and foremost, there’s been a dramatic reduction of coverage in Libya in the last few weeks anyway. But I do think that if more and more journalists find themselves in very unsafe conditions with no one to turn to, that I think that could further lead to a reduction of coverage just for safety and security reasons, although this is a story that right now is very much on the wane, not to say it won't be recharged by events such as a significant military victory or defeat on one side or the other, or certainly Gaddafi leaving the country. But right now it feels like we're in it for the long haul and that there’s definitely diminishing U.S. media interest in the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The American public is different from the rest of the world when it comes to its engagement or lack of engagement with foreign news, isn't it?
MARK JURKOWITZ: There’s been a suggestion, obviously, that the American public doesn't pay that much attention to events overseas unless they directly involve American interests or American troops. If so, that might be a case of the chicken and the egg. I mean, there’s not a lot of media coverage of these kinds of things around the world. I mean, one of the things that we've found that’s fascinating is of all the United States military commitments now, the most active one, perhaps the one with the highest stakes, is the war in Afghanistan. Yet, you know, we, we almost call it the forgotten war here at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. With troops on the ground, with casualty counts growing every year, it has failed to sustain major significant media coverage. It never, for example, achieved the level of attention or coverage that the media gave, for example, to the war in Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK JURKOWITZ: You’re welcome, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Jurkowitz is the associate director of the PEW Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Steve Coll covered his fair share of natural disaster and war in his decades as foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, and he found that there is a template for many stories, no matter how harrowing. In his experience, earthquake and disaster coverage, in general, follow a 12-day editorial cycle. He witnessed it while covering an earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people in Iran. The first few days are spent reporting breaking news and casualties and destruction. Around day five, the late miracle story in which search teams find an improbable survivor amidst the rubble. Day seven brings the interpretation of meaning story, with religious overtones. By day 12, it’s essentially buh-bye for now.
STEVE COLL: Most correspondents run out of laundry or patience or their editors feel that the story is no longer getting on A-1 and so it would be better to invest in another subject. And the best way to create a sort of place-holding story was to write that, you know, to be sure, the recovery will take a long time and there will be many challenges ahead. So it’s a sort of forecasting story that also says, we're not going to be here tomorrow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Still, Coll says when he looks especially at the coverage of the Japanese nuclear crisis, he’s puzzled by the way it’s calmed down.
STEVE COLL: There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about exactly how much radiation is being emitted and whether the approaches that the government is taking are plausible or likely to succeed. I do think the changes in our national media economy make a difference. Twenty or thirty years ago, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun and The Philadelphia Inquirer would all have had correspondents swarming into Japan. There would be wire service and syndicated reporting coursing through the systems, and the broadcast networks would be responding to the persistence of that coverage. In the current environment, if The Times isn't covering it, if NPR isn't covering it, it may not really exist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Should we be worried about that?
STEVE COLL: Well, we are a global power with military and diplomatic interests and deployments all over the world, and we expend tax dollars and put lives at risk all the time in complicated foreign environments, so yeah, it’s a problem. We ought to be thinking about these places on an empirical basis in greater depth than we sometimes do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You don't have to get snotty about it. [LAUGHS]
STEVE COLL: [LAUGHING] I wasn't trying to be snotty.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I was just frustrated. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Have you got any guesses on which is the chicken and which the egg? Are the media reflecting a waning public interest or have editors’ interests waned and moved on to domestic affairs, the budget battle, Donald Trump, etc., and so readers, listeners, viewers have largely moved on too?
STEVE COLL: I think there’s a follow-the-money aspect of it. It used to be believed by a lot of the publishers and editors that the money they invested in international coverage was a kind of public service, something they could afford to do with their surplus profits, that it was not an imperative of what their audiences wanted. We used to do surveys, at least at The Washington Post, and when you asked people what did you get from your newspaper yesterday that you couldn't get anywhere else that you really valued, they provided two answers again and again. One was very local news and the other was international news. I do think there are substantial numbers of Americans who want strong, good coverage of international affairs, but it’s so expensive to cover these kinds of crises properly in a professional way, that if you’re struggling to even break even over the course of a year, it’s very easy to send your correspondents home early or to not go to some prolonged crisis, like Libya’s, with just a bleeding checkbook, at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve, thank you very much.
STEVE COLL: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Journalist Steve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation. Anthony Shadid works for one of those news outlets for whom, Coll said, Libya still exists, The New York Times.
ANTHONY SHADID: You know, we don't leave the story just because, you know, people aren't interested in the story. I think a lot of journalists will feel that there’s almost a mission to cover these stories when no one cares about them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since the Libyan uprising, some 49 journalists have been detained, some brutalized while in custody. There have been 11 physical assaults and four journalists have been killed. Two of those journalists died this week, photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Anthony Shadid was among several journalists detained last month for six days by Gaddafi forces before being released, abused but alive. I wondered what did he want us, his readers, to know when he was in captivity.
ANTHONY SHADID: Well, I think when we were taken, our, our biggest concern was that we’d be forgotten. You know, in our case, and I think every case is different – it’s hard to say that there’s any rule out there – you know, we were four people and a conflict is raging around you that involves millions. We were obviously very lucky and treated much better than we probably could have been. But I think selfishly when you’re in that situation you do hope that you’re not going to be forgotten.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you know the two photographers who were killed this week?
ANTHONY SHADID: I did. And both those men were incredibly brave, who took it upon themselves to chronicle a story that a lot of journalists wouldn't want to cover because of the danger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A number of journalists who have been killed have been photojournalists, I guess because they need to get even closer to the action.
ANTHONY SHADID: I hate to speak for photographers but, you know, just my sense as a, as a writer working with them is that, you know, the image is their work. Chronicling those, those images and those stories in a very visceral way is the task before them. And, without question, it’s the most dangerous task.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid is based in Beirut. Lynsey Addario is a photojournalist who was kidnapped along with Shadid by Gaddafi forces last month. She’s photographed conflict for over 15 years, but despite her history of documenting the most dangerous places, she says she’s never covered a place more dangerous than Libya.
LYNSEY ADDARIO: I've covered Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Congo, Darfur, a number of conflicts. But the way the front line is laid out, there is one road that goes through the desert, and it’s a wide open road and very flat. So as Gaddafi’s troops were fighting the rebels and coming in from the west, they were shelling with tank fire and mortars, air strikes and PK machine gun fire, all of that without a place to hide for cover. So basically if you were 500 meters away from the front line you couldn't cover anything because all of the fighting was going on in this place that was wide open.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The two photographers that were killed this week were killed by mortar fire.
LYNSEY ADDARIO: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you know them?
LYNSEY ADDARIO: Yes, I did know them. I knew them well. [SIGHS] You know, we've all seen each other in the field for years. And Tim Hetherington and I, when he was filming Restrepo I was out there for about two months on and off. Tim was an incredibly sensitive person, a very intelligent person. He was kind. He was empathetic with his subjects. I mean, he was just a, a really amazing photographer, as was Chris. Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington produced some of the most enduring images of conflict of our day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reporters don't want to be presented as some kind of exception to a, a tragic rule -
LYNSEY ADDARIO: Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - of civilian deaths.
LYNSEY ADDARIO: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand?
LYNSEY ADDARIO: A loss is a loss, whether it’s a journalist or a civilian. I just think it reverberates in our circles because these are our friends. And, you know, we all know the price that any of us can pay doing this job. And it’s difficult to come to terms with that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lynsey, thank you very much.
LYNSEY ADDARIO: You’re welcome. Take care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Photojournalist Lynsey Addario.