The danger of budget cuts on foreign news coverage

Sanne van Oosten

The Dutch government has announced severe budget cuts for public television channels in the Netherlands. “What is a real and serious pity, is that it is always the foreign news reporting to be the one to suffer first” says Step Vaessen, news anchor for Al Jazeera, stationed in Jakarta. Michel Maas, correspondent for both the Dutch national news program and a national newspaper agrees and reasons that “in general, in Holland, people are not interested in what is happening outside their own country.” This makes me wonder, what is the importance of foreign news coverage and what can be done to counter this trend of reduced interest and funds?

Even though people have increasing access to information and communication methods through internet, this does not necessarily mean that this leads to a global understanding from one culture to the next. Many people have no idea of the dynamics that inhibit other regions of the world than where they themselves live. Vaessen: “Budget cuts on foreign news coverage makes people in, for instance, Holland less aware of what is going on in the world. They aren’t aware about what is going on in Asia for example: Asia is booming.” Nevertheless, most of the foreign news that reaches, for instance, the people of the Netherlands, is news of disaster and disease, instead of development and economic growth. Vaessen: “There are so many things going on here in Asia. Still thinking that Europe is the centre of the world, is a thought of the past.” That’s a problem, people don’t see what is going on because there is not much news reporting. It isn’t just a pity, it’s also dangerous because it creates a wrong perception of reality. Maas agrees: “If you keep focusing on yourself you become biased very quickly. You see this in politics, it’s a dangerous thing to only look at your own country and forget about the rest.”

Step Vaessen sees this as a widespread problem that goes beyond the Netherlands and even Europe. “Of course this is not just a Dutch problem, but more of an international problem. There is a crisis going on in the West. Not in this part of the world [Asia], but in the West there is. And you see that all the media outlets are cutting costs.” In the Netherlands there is a very simple solution. The whole system in the Netherlands is based on a very old-fashioned system of broadcasters. This system of broadcasters dates back to the times of pillarization (verzuiling), the post-war situation of a segmented society, in which each segment of society preferred their own media coverage. The catholics, protestants, liberals and communists had their own media outlet, for example. Now, in a depillarized society, each broadcaster has its own correspondent flying abroad at great expense. And for a small country like the Netherlands, having about four different stories about one foreign news item is an unnecessary waste of money. Vaessen agrees, “I think they should combine forces, they should share their information and footage. Then they can make sure that they have a permanent presence in various countries, so they can actually cover foreign news.”

Michel Maas does not share this opinion. “Especially when it comes to news programs, I think it’s a good thing if you have as many news programs as possible. Several programs can present the news from different angles. If you squeeze it all together into one broadcaster, then you only get one type of news program and there is nothing to compare anymore.” Step Vaessen doesn’t see this happening at all. “When I watch all evening news programs in Holland I don’t see a difference. I keep on seeing the same people, saying the same things, making the same programs, so I don’t think they are really picking up on the challenge of telling their story from their point of view.” Possibly, broadcasters could join forces for foreign news coverage and remain segmented for national news coverage. This could save a lot of money and enable the Dutch news to produce high-quality foreign news items that prevents the Dutch people from becoming ignorant to the world beyond their borders.

This discussion on foreign news coverage also strengthens my belief in the importance of grassroots media, news outlets generated by individuals who tell their story from their point of view. Since the budget cuts on foreign news coverage seem inevitable, I hope this will inspire individuals to create a diverse media landscape on their own. Internet offers this possibility. Let the news broadcasters cover the foreign news coverage and let grassroots media cover the rest.

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