Amy Ellis Nutt is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and enterprise writer at Newark's Star Ledger. She is the author of Shadows Bright as Glass: the Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her in-depth investigative reporting on the still unexplained sinking of a fishing boat off the coast of Cape May in 2009, which killed six crew members. She is the recipient of the 2011 Women of Concern Leadership Award sponsored by Concern Worldwide U.S., the international humanitarian organization.
Q: What has been the effect of the radical cutbacks in U.S. media coverage of foreign news, the closing of foreign bureaus, and the over-emphasis on celebrity culture?
A: Sadly, the breathless media coverage of celebrities has always been with us. It's the wealth not just of media outlets, but the ubiquity of online gossip sites that makes it seem as if celebrity news is all there is. The radical downturn in the financial health of traditional news outlets, especially magazines and newspapers, has affected foreign news coverage more than anything else. The push for hyper-local coverage as a way for newspapers to re-establish themselves, has also led to a shedding of resources for foreign news, even any news beyond a newspaper or magazine's circulation area.
At least 18 newspapers and two chains have shuttered all their foreign bureaus in the past decade, including The Star-Ledger. Among the others: The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald and San Francisco Chronicle. Foreign news was never a mainstay of the front page, but even less of it reaches page one now than in the past. With globalization and American involvement in two wars, only National Public Radio seems to have increased its foreign coverage over the same period. The result is, quite simply, that Americans don't really know what's going on in the rest of the world. And with an over-emphasis on American problems, we become further isolated from the global community.
Q: What stories are American viewers missing?
A: The problem with answering that question is that without foreign bureaus we simply don't know. There was certainly plenty of TV coverage of what is now called the Arab Spring, the popular movements toward democracy that are taking hold in the Middle East this year. But the problem with covering breaking news is that few reporters stick around long enough to cover the aftermath. We've certainly seen this in Haiti, after last year's earthquake, and likewise in Indonesia after the terrible Tsunami in 2005. It is always the aftermath, the after effects that are missed when news outlets are concentrated on simply covering breaking news.
Q: Are there other ways to bring the plight of the extreme poor in the developing world to the public's attention?
A: Many news outlets simply don't have the money and manpower to populate foreign bureaus these days, but that does not mean that foreign stories -- especially those non-breaking news stories about extreme poverty -- can't be told. One of the tremendous upsides of the digital revolution in news coverage is that it has allowed even major TV news organizations to only send individuals abroad, not teams of people, and with fewer big pieces of equipment. The media today is literally lighter and leaner, and because of that better able to penetrate places where news has a hard time breaking out. As a print journalist, I recognize the power of the image to bring readers and viewers to a subject, especially one that might be foreign to them. That's why digital media is so important today to foreign news coverage. While citizen journalists are still a controversial subject among my professional colleagues, they are clearly an important conduit today for getting foreign news to American news sources.
Q: What do women bring to the world of journalism?
A: I'd like to think that male and female journalists are the same species, and professionally, of course, that is the way it should be. Being a woman in a foreign country can be fraught with peril, as the horrifying story of CBS correspondent Lara Logan made clear earlier this year. But as a woman and a journalist, I know, too, that I sometimes have a different eye for stories and a different way of dealing with people than my male counterparts. In some ways, I find it easier to integrate myself into the community of people I'm writing about, and usually I am not at a loss as to how to communicate with those people, whether domestically or abroad, and on whatever level is needed.
Q: What do you consider to be the greatest strengths of U.S. media and journalism -- and the greatest weaknesses?
A: Relentlessness. The media here in America is best when it refuses to let go of a story. That's why American investigative journalism, the mainstay of any democracy, is unrivaled in the world. By the same token, I think Americans have a uniquely short attention span, which is why we can overwhelm a story when it's breaking news, but too often then move on to the next natural disaster or revolution, or controversy -- giving short shrift to the deeper, more nuanced problems left behind.
Q: How can Americans best stay informed about critical issues affecting millions, such as hunger, disease and poverty? How can their attention, compassion and generosity best be triggered?
A: Americans have always been known for their big hearts and their capacity to be moved by the plight of others, whether foreign or domestic. The challenge is how to reach Americans with these stories. Humanitarian organizations and NGOs, such as Concern Worldwide, can play a critical role. I remember when I was coming of age in the 1970s that one of the dominating foreign news stories, other than the war in Vietnam, was the famine in Biafra.
I knew the name Biafra, in fact, before I ever knew what it was, or where it was. And I remember it now mainly because of the Life magazine cover from 1968, when I was 13, and the photographs of Biafran children with bellies swollen by hunger. These were images few Americans had ever seen before and they truly shocked their consciences. Doctors Without Borders had its origin in that humanitarian crisis, and other non-state actors, like Joint Church Aid, Holy Ghost Fathers of Ireland, Caritas International and Catholic Relief Services all gave support. It was because of them that the media followed to tell the story.
Q: Are social media a big part of the solution?
A: Absolutely. Social media and citizen journalism will rarely be able to give the in-depth reporting and objective story-telling, but they have helped to shrink the world to the size of 140 characters. As our politicians seem to be learning over and over again, there is very little privacy in the world anymore. For foreign news coverage, that is huge. If the media is not tweeting the Revolution, someone else will.
Q: Your new book chronicles the incredible resilience and will to succeed of a single individual. What are the emotional and practical ingredients in a person's success to overcome the toughest odds?
A: There are always larger lessons to be learned from individual stories. In the case of Jon Sarkin, what was most important to him was that he was not alone, either in his search for a cure for his original ailment, or in his struggle to regain his life after his stroke. He could always count on having access to health care, food, and shelter -- and that was enormously important, of course. But insofar as recovering his mind and soul, Jon was transformed when he met someone else who had gone through the same thing he had. Belonging to a community, even a community of two, became an anchor for him. Simply knowing that someone else has overcome the odds is always an inspiration no matter the nature of the plight.
Q: How do you think it is possible for the extreme poor in destitute communities to find the will to keep going? Besides food and medicine, what do they need to receive, or hear, from their privileged counterparts in the West?
A: It is hard for any American, who has never lived in poverty, to know what is most needed. Certainly, that someone is listening, that their story has spread beyond the walls of their own private misery, that someone, somewhere, cares. The great American poet Emily Dickinson once wrote that "hope is the thing with feathers." Hope is always there, for everyone, but sometimes we need to be reminded of it by another kindred soul.