01/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Foreign Policy and The Fourth Estate

Amidst all the troubles facing American foreign policymakers today -- from the international financial crisis to growing threats from terrorism and failed states -- add the continued decline of American journalism. The economic downturn in the fortunes of traditional U.S. networks and newspapers has slowly eroded coverage of global hot-spots. Recent reports on the The New York Times' financial woes coupled with news that National Public Radio, faced with a sharp decline in revenue, will cut back its programming and institute the first organization-wide layoffs in 25 years, are the latest examples of how America's best and brightest news organizations are facing tough times as they compete for coverage with web-based news services, blogs, cable television and internet reporting.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg:

According to the Pew Research Center's recent study of American journalism, coverage of international events is declining more than any other subject. In the study of 2007, 64% of participating newspaper editors said their papers had reduced the space for international news. "In a strict sense, the American media did not in 2007 cover the world," says the Pew report. Beyond Iraq, only two countries received notable coverage last year -- Iran and Pakistan.

It is easy to understand why news junkies who like foreign affairs would be rattled by these downturns. But why should a national security policymaker worry about such trends?

Firstly, without public understanding, knowledge and, ultimately, support of foreign affairs, it is impossible to build a consensus for action.

Take the case of Darfur. In recent times, we have seen an upsurge in interest and activism at the grassroots level in the United States, galvanized by the crisis in Darfur, and driven, in part, by horrific video and stories of rape, pillaging and death. The grassroots activism has brought together a remarkably wide and diverse alliance of citizen groups -- left and right, religious and secular, urban and rural, young and old, from all races and backgrounds -- coming together in the shared belief that we as Americans can do more to halt needless massacres of innocents. And that pressure is then placed on Congress and the Executive Branch to take assertive action. Public pressure generates political will. But if the journalists are not there to report, will the public know what is happening around the world?

Secondly, government policymakers rely on in-depth, high-quality investigative news reporting as a vital source of objective information to add to their own internal reporting and analysis. Reporters often have access and sources that the government does not. Well-trained, professional journalists that live and report overseas have a cultural understanding of the societies they cover -- a vital perspective for readers, including policymakers.

Good journalists also provide context. It is one thing to get streaming video of people running from hotels in Mumbai. It is another to have serious reporting about the sources of terrorism and its regional implications.

Lastly, as we see the proliferation of actors in the age of globalization -- from corporations to non-governmental organizations, to ordinary citizens, we need neutral, unbiased, reporting to make sense of an increasingly complex world with many players on the international scene. Which is not to denigrate the role of non-journalists. Non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, and Physicians for Social Responsibility -- are often the first ones on the ground in a conflict zone, providing critical services and information from remote areas where the media is not based. More and more these organizations are providing the only real-time reports and bulletins. But these organizations also have their own activist agendas and we should not confuse them with reporters.

The irony, of course, is that never in our history have we needed good overseas reporting more than now. President-elect Obama enters the world stage with a sense of hunger for new U.S. leadership around the world. America has a chance to re-introduce itself after eight years of disengagement and fixation on Iraq. Expectations and hopes are high that other countries and cultures will get attention now. We cannot afford to squander the opportunity to hear the stories of those who live outside our borders and have them understand our story.

Let's hope that a period of American interest and engagement in the world is matched by a vibrant and robust professional media, and that we don't have to bail out our networks and newspapers. That would be a truly bad news story.

Tara Sonenshine is former Editorial Producer of ABC NEWS Nightline, former Contributing Editor at Newsweek Magazine and worked on The National Security Council under President Clinton.