Reporters in War:How does the media influence foreign policy? (article for the event)

The days are gone when a major international newspaper was unthinkable without a network of foreign correspondents. Wise middle aged men were sitting around in smoky offices exchanging political rumors, meeting influential insiders behind closed doors, and pretending to be as secretive as possible about their sources. Newspapers usually started with global or international news, putting into context what’s happening at home, helping readers understand the world beyond their borders. There was an exotic flair about everything happening abroad.

During the Cold War, the Hungarian public had been considerably better informed about foreign affairs as about domestic news: understandably, it was national politics and the power games in the politburo which had to be hidden and could not be written about. As a compensation, papers were full of international stories, usually politically biased, but still offering a virtually global tour to the readers behind the Iron Curtain.

But as the world opened up, news and reporting have become increasingly local, in some cases even provincial. International news have been banished from the first pages to the mid-section of the newspapers, and – with the exception of natural catastrophes, royal babies or a bloody war in the neigborhood – prime time TV news editors tended to ignore the field almost entirely. How do you explain a global conflict in 20 seconds, is usually asked. You can’t. Then you’d better not touch it, and hope the consequences will not creep up in your backyard.

Sometimes though, there is a reality check. In the fifth year of the Syrian war, and after consecutive tragedies of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, people and governments in Europe have still been caught by surprise – and fully unprepared – seeing the exodus of refugees. Who is to blame? Journalists, who were not pushing hard with their stories? Editors, who were ignorant and not receptive enough? The general public, which is by nature unable to look beyond its nose? Or politicians, who usually do not look further than the national ( or even worse: city/district) borders and their four-year term? Paradoxically, the current refugee crisis shows that the media – and especially pictures – can have powerful effects. The images of the refugees stranded at Budapest Eastern Railways station have actually prompted German Chancellor Merkel to take a serious turn in her policies, affecting the entire EU.

International reporting seems to be back. Feeling affected by events beyond the borders, people start wondering about remote places, search for clues to understand the roots of savage wars and ethnic conflicts, learn the name of cities like Aleppo, Homs or Mosul. Where classic newspapers or TV are slow to move, online journalism and social media take the lead. With media outlets closing down their permanent foreign offices due to cost cutting, there is a growing need for immediately deployable “generalists”, who can report from Paris, Oslo or London, if there is a story evolving there. Parallelly, there is a growing necessity for stringers, special correspondents – in many cases war correspondents – who are willing to take risks, and offer first-hand, exclusive stories and images of the conflict zones. But how big is the market for war stories, and what are the risks involved? Who are the sources to be trusted? How can a journalists remain objective, or are there extreme situations when objectivity is overruled by a feeling of rage, sorrow or dispair? What sells a good story in the 21st century?

In the sixth event of the Euro-Altantic Cafe we are trying to explore questions concerning the media and foreign policy. What do Anglo-Saxon, European and Hungarian editors look for, how difficult is it to sell a war story in print or in online media? Do readers appreciate the efforts and the dangers a war correspondent is willing to undertake, is there any feedback? Under what circumstances do foreign correspondents work? And ultimately, can the media influence foreign policy?