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Reporter’s Notebook: Challenges of Reporting From Closed Societies

I was in my hotel room in Tehran two years ago when I got the call from the Information Ministry, telling me that my short-term visa had been revoked. I had to leave Iran within 48 hours. My offense: accepting an invitation to meet with the family of a young student protester who had died earlier that summer in Evin prison. His family believed he’d been perished from wounds suffered under torture in prison, not from his weeks-long hunger fast.

I left the country without fanfare, and though the NewsHour briefly reported my expulsion, we chose not to make much of it. Our concern was the safety of the young man’s parents, who’d been intercepted by Iranian intelligence with a stern warning of what would befall them if they talked to reporters.

It would have been a compelling story for the NewsHour — even without talking to the young man’s parents. I had other sources of information, including other family members. And it would have told our viewers something revealing about the Iranian regime’s treatment of dissidents in its society. But the risk to the family dictated discretion on our part.

The family has now fled Iran, without any further loss of life. But this incident was just one small example of the risks and trade-offs journalists and their subjects have to make, when trying to tell their stories in countries where the government sees the free flow of information as a threat to its authority and survival.

Yet the dangers U.S. journalists face overseas pale in comparison to those faced by local reporters across the globe. In Russia, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta has had four of its reporters murdered in the past six years, for investigating and writing about graft, crime and corruption among the government and business elite. Chinese journalists are thrown in jail for crossing the “red line” of permissible reporting about wrongdoing by those in power. Each year across the globe, says the Committee to Project Journalists, scores of reporters are abducted, attacked, censored, harassed, imprisoned, expelled or killed for trying to find and convey the truth.

This makes it all the more important for U.S. journalists — and news organizations — to continue reporting from closed societies overseas. Many of these are countries where the U.S. is engaged, or has vital interests in developments there. We live in an era when Americans need to understand more, not less, about hidden corners of an ever more complex world. Yet many main stream media organizations have drastically cut back or eliminated overseas bureaus altogether — even as U.S. engagement in the world is deepening.

The challenge of reporting from closed societies — and of sustaining overseas reporting in the digital age — will be explored this week at a two-day Council on Foreign Relations conference, Sept. 9-10, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Edward R. Murrow fellowship. Named for the legendary CBS correspondent and anchor, the fellowship supports one U.S. journalist each year, freeing him or her up to focus on a project based on international reporting. The fellowship has a proud history, but the craft it has helped nurture is threatened today by the technological and financial realities of 21st century journalism.

At The NewsHour, we’ve found creative low-budget ways to report from the field in intense, three-to-four week bursts; in the past three years, my travels have taken me from China and Russia to Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Venezuela, Kenya and Western Europe. This sort of episodic in-depth reporting has an important role to play, but it cannot replace the more expensive enterprise of maintaining a sustained on-the-ground reportorial presence overseas. Today, only the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and a shrinking handful of other news organizations still do that.

So in addition to hearing war stories from some of its most stellar alums, this week’s Murrow Fellowship conference will wrestle with the larger issue involved: How can the vital work of international coverage — with the on-the-ground original reporting it requires — be sustained? Can mainstream newspaper and television organizations continue to support it as their traditional audiences shrink? Can new Internet-based news outfits take up the slack, and maintain the same standards of reporting?

I’ll be there, and offer my inside view of the discussions and debate on The Online NewsHour. If I can make my Flip Camera work, I’ll also bring you spot interviews with some of the participants. We’ll provide links to a special Council blog, with personal stories from previous fellowship winners about reporting overseas, and their thoughts on how to sustain international reporting in the digital age. And you’ll be able to watch some of the panel discussions, on a delayed basis, through links on our Web site.

Watch this space for all this, and more.

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