New book by JMH: Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting.

Thank you for this interview with John Maxwell Hamilton.

JMH’s book Main Street America and the Third World put into words what I had been doing for many years, trying to make folks understand there is a solid link between their every day lives in any given U.S. city and the rest of the world. (And I mean more than just buying cheap Chinese-made products in the Wal-Mart or driving a KIA.)

I have used this idea in many of the journalism classes I taught at George Mason University. And some of my students have taken this line of thinking to heart.

The whole reason I started this blog was to try to show the connections among domestic US issues and the rest of the world. And to fill a gap in this type of discussion.

A while ago I tried to get JMH to speak at an SPJ convention to talk about the local-global links. (He is an SPJ member and I was active in the International Journalism Committee.) But he was in the midst of writing this book and could not take the time. Since then, the SPJ International Committee and I have not been on speaking terms. (That changed with the latest SPJ president. )

I can’t wait to get my copy of A History of American Foreign Reporting. (Of course I usually have to wait at least 9 days longer because the US military mail system the embassies use is not the fastest in the world.)

From the interview:

Foreign news is expensive to collect, Hamilton observes, and tough to vet because editors can’t second-guess it the way they can city-hall coverage. But the biggest obstacle facing U.S. media operations isn’t gathering foreign news and publishing it. It’s getting readers and viewers to pay attention to it. The public’s appetite for foreign news oscillates, Hamilton writes, usually paralleling the United States’ entry into a war or the touchdown of a killer typhoon elsewhere on the planet. When the war winds down or the floodwaters recede, so does reader interest and eventually the commitment of publishers and editors to sustain coverage

I have argued with my students that in a declining job market for journalists, they need to do something to make them stand out. One such thing would be to make the local connections of international events.

  • Pay closer attention to what companies (and their countries of origin) own the local plants that provide local employment.
  • Pay closer attention to immigrant groups. Especially groups that are from war-torn areas.

More from the interview:

Today foreign news is one of the most expensive kinds of news and, unlike in colonial days, one of the categories with the lowest levels of audience interest.


Q: When, how, and why did the job of foreign correspondent become such a romantic position? Is it still? When did its status peak?

A: Foreign correspondence has a natural element of romanticism—and this could be seen as soon as that class of professional reporter emerged in the last half of the 19th century. “The special correspondent must be ‘to the manor born,’ ” observed a Scribner’s author in 1893. “He must be as sanguine as a songbird, and as strong and willing as a race horse.”


Today it is much easier for anyone to go abroad, sometimes just for a weekend the way one used to go to the shore. The distant is much more familiar to all of us. So, a correspondent is less special.


Q: Your book has a couple of early 20th century examples of American foreign correspondents “going native” in Asia. Is it inevitable that foreign correspondents will start identifying with the region they’re reporting from at the expense of the readers they’re supposed to be serving?

A: Going native is an age-old problem that confronts editors. Do you want a fresh set of eyes to look at the foreign scene and explain it? Do you want someone with deep knowledge who truly understands the issues? More than one correspondent has been recalled or fired because he or she simply got too sucked into the foreign scene. But it is not inevitable that a correspondent abroad for a long time falls into the trap. One way to avoid this is to move correspondents to other countries after two or three years. Yet another is to recall a correspondent for a spell to be re-acquainted with the home country. My own view is that some of the most useful reporting abroad has been done by men and women with extensive experience in that enterprise. They are the ones who can point us to stories that the untutored reporter is not likely to recognize.


Good foreign reporting has come from news media with two attributes. One is a relatively upscale audience. The other is an owner with an elevated sense of the mission of journalism.

And yet I would argue that good foreign reporting can come when local publishers adhere to an elevated sense of the mission of journalism, even it their publication is not aimed at an upscale audience. The connections made through commerce, immigration and personal relationships should push more local publishers to include more news about those countries that impact their communities. The problem is — in my mind — not enough editors or reporters have the breadth of knowledge to see those connections. Plus, they often have publishers singing only from the “Local Local Local” hymn book.


1 Comment

Filed under International News Coverage, Story Ideas

One response to “New book by JMH: Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting.

  1. Pingback: Journalism and the World » Blog Archive » New Hamilton book on foreign correspondents out

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