Sala de Prensa

114
Abril 2009
Año XI, Vol. 5

WEB PARA PROFESIONALES DE LA COMUNICACION IBEROAMERICANOS

A R T I C U L O S

   


Corresponsales extranjeros

These Days, No Reporting Behind a Nation’s Back

Anand Giridharadas *

VERLA, India.- They sat before me, husband and wife, and explained why they wanted a divorce.

In a dingy Indian courthouse, the couple had agreed to be interviewed for an article on the fraying of Indian marriages because their counselor had told them that I was a foreign correspondent; my work would circulate “there,” not “here.” They didn’t mind if people in the Bronx read of their unraveling, but they didn’t want their families or neighbors to.

Normally, it is the interviewed who seek anonymity and we correspondents who discourage it. But in this case, it fell to me to alert them that their counselor’s advice was out of date, and to suggest that they hide their full identities behind their Hindu astrological names.

Foreign correspondence, I explained, is not as foreign as it used to be. “There, not here,” is over.

It is a momentous, overlooked shift in the world: Foreign correspondents no longer cover one place for the exclusive benefit of readers somewhere else. In the Internet age, we cover each place for the benefit of all places, and the reported-on are among the most avid consumers of what we report. If my sources had fully identified themselves, expecting privacy, they might have been surprised to learn who follows Western coverage of India most devotedly.

According to data teased out of the Google Trends service, the phrases “new york times india” and “washington post india” are searched eight times as much in India, as a proportion of all Indian searches, as the equivalent in the United States. By the same measure, “new york times china” is searched more intensively in Beijing than in New York.

This dynamic applies to countries from Brazil to Russia. And Thomas Friedman’s book “The World Is Flat,” in which he cites Bangalore’s transformation as he explains the 21st-century world, is searched more regularly in India than in the United States. The world has flattened in yet another way: the Internet makes it possible, almost everywhere, to see how the world outside sees you, and in real time.

I rang up Roger Cohen, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist for The New York Times, to get a feel for the world now vanishing.

Mr. Cohen began with Reuters in 1979. Correspondents would roam for days; editors didn’t know where they were and there were no BlackBerrys to use to track them down.

Their work, once published, slowly filtered into the discussion back in Washington or Paris and helped to inform that debate; in time, of course, it could make its way back to the covered countries. Some newspapers, including this one, sold overseas editions in small numbers in dozens of international cities. Émigrés cut out articles for relatives in the old country. Governments monitored foreign press coverage.

But the vast populations that foreign correspondents wrote about remained for the most part oblivious to what was being said about them. And even when they knew, there was no easy way to talk back, except by mailing a letter to the newspaper’s headquarters that, by correspondents’ accounts, was almost never forwarded to bureaus.

I started 26 years after Mr. Cohen, and my generation of correspondents will never starve for feedback. The newspaper’s online edition is available almost everywhere. People in far-flung countries read us like just another newspaper. Others happen to stumble on our Web sites through Internet search engines.

So the reported-on know what we’re saying — and now they can retort. They blog about our work; post it admiringly or disparagingly on Facebook; find our e-mail addresses with a few keystrokes; comment on our Web sites to point out mistakes. In my own experience as a correspondent in India, the majority of this activity has come from within the country. The coverage is available universally, but it is followed most passionately by those being covered.

And the implications for foreign correspondence are far larger than has perhaps been grasped.

“Here” readers are better watchdogs than “there” readers. They catch errors that a Western editor simply cannot. They also form a check on the exoticizing impulse. Certain lenses for seeing a country sell easily overseas: India’s poverty, China’s repression. But a battalion of bloggers is raring to point out the obvious and hackneyed, and they keep us on our toes.

Peter Foster, a correspondent in Beijing for The Telegraph in London and an active blogger, wrote in an e-mail message that his blog “opened up an invaluable discussion/discourse with readers,” but he also noted high levels of nationalism and “vitriol” in this talk-back.

Luke Harding, the Moscow bureau chief for the British newspaper The Guardian, suggested that the vitriol he received for his coverage of last year’s war in Georgia seemed organized. “I suspect — but can’t prove — there is now a new cadre of professional bloggers working anonymous for the Kremlin, and presumably other governments,” he wrote in an e-mail message.

The feedback loops also threaten a correspondent’s ability to bring home the juiciest meat, as Nicholas Kristof, another foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, observed in an e-mail message. Blogging and Twittering and instantaneous publication empower not only readers, but also those most threatened by daring journalism. A column he wrote about Iran, he said, published while he was still there and read by the authorities, led to his temporary detention at the airport.

Moreover, there is a tradition of sources’ telling foreign correspondents what they would not tell a local journalist or official. That is often how a historical record about wars and genocides is assembled: people whispering into the ear of someone soon to leave. Such whispering could shrink in the Web age.

And in this new world it is easy to become addicted to the debate one stirs. The “most e-mailed” lists, the blogs, the online comments — these can tempt one to write what draws the most praise or at least the most “noise,” as Mr. Cohen put it. “You hear a great range of views about what you are writing, and some of those views can be exciting or interesting or lead you in new directions in terms of what you write and subjects you choose,” he said. “My hesitation is that this is a temptation to somehow write into that noise and stir it further and be in the noise because it’s fun being in it, which I think can be a distraction.”

In the 1990s, Mr. Cohen chronicled, in person, the horrors that accompanied Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Today, correspondents doing such work can find their time being sucked away by the profusion online of viewpoints and images and tweets from the scene, which multiply and demand attention. But keeping abreast of the Internet chatter is not the same as bearing witness.

“Instead of looking at a Bosnian village or hillside or being in a room with a group of concentration-camp survivors or bereaved women,” Mr. Cohen said, “you would have just been staring at a screen and dealing with the rage of the Serbian diaspora in Munich or Los Angeles.”

He added, “I don’t regret at all that it wasn’t around then.”


* Anand Giridharadas es corresponsal del diario The New York Times en la India, donde publicó este etxto el 14 de marzo de 2009.


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