National Press Club

Pigeons to Tweets: Foreign correspondents help shape U.S. policy, author says

April 30, 2013 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Foreign correspondents shape Americans’ images of countries and thereby set the range of possible national policies, Giovanna Dell’Orto, professor at the University of Minnesota and former Associated Press reporter, told a National Press Club audience April 30.

She summarized the conclusions of her fourth book on journalism history, “American Journalism and International Relations: Foreign Correspondence from the Early Republic to the Digital Era.” The book analyzes 20 events from the revolutions of 1848 to the Mumbai, India, attacks of 2008.

Dell’Orto underlined the importance of foreign correspondents’ eyewitness accounts over the 160 years, transmitted in ways as diverse as passenger pigeons or tweets.

She cited the example of Castro’s claim, on seizing power, that no member of the previous regime had been killed, and contrasted it with an eyewitness report of freshly dug soil at the site where executions had been reported.

“There is no other way to truly enrich the understanding'' of the world except by going there, she said.

The foreign correspondent’s images can restrict or enlarge the policy range by changing public understanding, she said, because, in a democracy politicians want to be reelected and will respond to public understanding.

It is dangerous when “we don’t know what we don’t know,” she said.

She said that during the time former Mexican President Vincente Fox’s election was uncertain, a report that no matter who won, “Mexico will still be Mexico,” was an example of reductive discourse. Reports of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “Arabs and Israelis will hate each other forever” were a further example, she said.

Another constant over the 160 years was a tendency to see foreign countries “just like us,” by interpreting their revolutions through the events of 1776 and asking whether other countries had their own George Washingtons, she said.

Foreign correspondents also tended to perceive others as wanting democracy but maybe just not capable of getting it unless the U.S. assisted, she said.

“We should understand the world before we act in it,” the professor said.

She cited coverage of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a “truly superb moment.” The goal in reporting such events is trying to see it through the eyes of the people who are living through it, she said.

She acknowledged that foreign correspondents and the necessary support - editors, lawyers, logistical support in case of danger – are expensive, and the numbers have shrunk in the current environment in the news industry. Turning to freelancers, stringers and local hires is not a substitute, she said, because they operate without such support.