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Media Scholar Profiles Foreign Correspondents in US


Americans rarely get a chance to read what the nation's foreign press corps writes about them, but a new book offers a snapshot view of those journalists -- who they are, what they report on, and how they do their job. Through Their Eyes: Foreign Correspondents in the United States, was written by Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and a long time analyst of the relationship between politics and the media.

Mr. Hess has written past studies of how American reporters cover news in Washington and other countries, and on how the U.S. government conducts its press operations. He calls Through Their Eyes a kind of "mirror image" of those earlier books. Published by the Brookings Institution Press, it profiles a sampling of the nearly 2000 journalists who report on America, from America, for print and broadcast services around the world.

While it is hard to generalize about such a diverse group, Mr. Hess says his research did uncover common themes. "By and large they're quite well educated. Clearly, being posted in the United States is not an entry-level job. These are experienced journalists. Many of them have had some previous experience in the United States. A third of them in fact went to school in the United States at one point in their lives."

Research for Through Their Eyes also revealed that members of the foreign press corps generally have a favorable opinion of Americans, says Mr. Hess, although they don't necessarily like everything about life in the United States or always approve of U.S. foreign policy. "But I think as opposed to people back on their desks, who maybe have limited experience, they have a nuanced position. They're not just tied to the stereotypes of the United States."

Pro American or not, these journalists often have a different set of priorities from their U.S. counterparts. Stephen Hess says they often look for stories that have particular meaning for their readers back home. "The Scandinavian countries I found are very interested in somebody who came from Norway or Sweden, for example, and maybe started a business that was successful in the United States. Then there are other countries that have very special connections with the United States -- our border countries such as Mexico and Canada. Certain countries, particularly in the Middle East, now are very interested in the reaction from the United States of anything that might affect their country."

Events affecting the Arab world are a key concern for Salameh Nematt, who is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Hayat International Arab Daily. "Whether we're dealing with the Iraq War, the Palestinian-Israeli situation, the peace process, as well as the international war on terrorism led by the United States," Mr. Nematt says, "these are all stories of great interest to our readers. So we try to focus more on these issues rather than domestic issues, except when domestic issues have a bearing on foreign policy, such as the U.S. Presidential election in 2004. Those elections were watched very closely throughout the Arab world."

Sometimes foreign correspondents find themselves juggling what they consider to be important stories with what interests editors and readers back home. Takashi Sakamoto, who reports from Washington for the Japanese daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, says there can be what he calls "a perception gap" between his home office and the Washington bureau.

"I'm interested in American domestic politics very much, for instance, the coming mid-term elections. I'm interested in politics itself, but I also think that some movement in domestic politics is going to affect the overall American foreign policy. But my editor in Tokyo tends to ask me to write about U.S. policy towards Japan. I have to explain how Americans are thinking about the global strategy and where Japan is positioned in that strategy."

Foreign correspondents may find themselves dealing with another kind of perception gap as well. Salameh Nematt says there can be pressure to cover events in ways that confirm negative stereotypes of the United States. "Especially if you are dealing with a part of the world where there is a lot of anti-Americanism, and you try to give the right picture, you end up getting a lot of feedback-E-mails and people accusing you of being biased."

Author Stephen Hess says the foreign press corps in the United States has changed in important ways over the past half century. It has become bigger and less print-oriented. The percentage of whites, males and Europeans has declined. There has been an especially marked increase in the number of Asian journalists in the United States, who now account for 27 percent of the total. And thanks to the Internet, foreign correspondents are in closer touch with their home offices.

But Mr. Hess says global communication systems like the Internet and CNN also put new pressures on correspondents. "CNN or comparable international cable networks are on in every newsroom throughout the world. So back there, their editors, their producers, are listening to this, and they will be quickly on the phone and say something like, 'There's this incredible car chase in Indiana,' and you will say, 'Well, who cares in Tokyo?' And they'll say, 'But it's on CNN, get out there to Indianapolis.' And so it goes. In the book we call that 'the CNN effect.'"

As for adapting to American-style journalism, Mr. Hess says many foreign correspondents find their greatest challenge is sorting through too much information. "Coming from a lot of countries, where the biggest problem is getting information, this seems to be strange, that we have a government that just pours out information. That can be as big a problem as too little information if you're on deadline and you're swamped with material. What I found as I kept resurveying people was that the longer they were here, the more this problem went away."

Stephen Hess says the journalists he surveyed for Through Their Eyes also reported that their attitudes towards the United States changed over time, often for the better. Some choose to stay permanently in America. Others move on to reporting jobs elsewhere the world, or return home to become editors or columnists, their long distance perspective on the United States now seasoned by first-hand experience.