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Demands of Foreign Assignments : Correspondents Must Mix Curiosity With Isolation

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS: Third in an intermittent series. Next: "Foreign correspondence tends to be a marriage-buster."

July 07, 1986|DAVID SHAW | Times Staff Writer

What qualities does a newspaper editor look for in a prospective foreign correspondent?

"We want someone with a sense of intelligent curiosity about other areas of the world," said Michael Getler, foreign editor of the Washington Post, "someone with a sense of adventure . . . who can . . . break fresh ground . . . with insight into how things are done in other countries . . . someone who can absorb a significant amount of disorder in their lives."

Editors also agree that the long hours and exhausting travel to which a foreign correspondent is subjected make being young and single a big advantage--and they agree, too, that a reporter working abroad must be able to work and live while cut off from the daily support system of friends, family and office colleagues.

"Most journalists are, by and large, insecure people," said Charles T. Powers, who just completed six years as the Los Angeles Times correspondent in Nairobi, Kenya. "I have gone through periods where I was on the road and sort of disconnected and where I felt fairly isolated. . . . I like to shmooze (with my editors) from time to time."

Powers likes to shmooze so much, in fact, that when he was still relatively new overseas, he received a note from his foreign editor saying that Times accountants had come across "a startling contrast" between his predecessor's telephone bill for the previous year ($2,000) and Powers' projected phone bill for his first year abroad ($12,000).

Powers attributes part of his higher telephone bill to an increase in telephone rates in Nairobi, but he concedes that he likes to talk to his editors more than some correspondents who "go for weeks at a time" without such contact.

Virtually all foreign correspondents complain about feelings of isolation and insecurity, though; they worry that no communication with the home office means that they have been forgotten or, worse, have fallen from favor.

In an effort to alleviate this problem, editors at the major papers send their foreign correspondents daily telex cables showing where the major foreign stories are being displayed in the next day's paper. Editors also telephone or telex their correspondents periodically, although the amount of such contact varies considerably, depending on the paper, the correspondent and the urgency of the story he or she is working on at any given time.

On a major, breaking news story, such as the overthrow of Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippines, most foreign editors speak with their correspondents several times a day, but in a bureau such as New Delhi, where such stories are infrequent, editors and their correspondents may not speak for weeks at a time.

Communications between correspondents in the field and their offices in the United States have improved considerably in recent years as telephone systems have become more sophisticated and as reporters have begun to use portable computers that connect to telephone lines to file their stories to their home office. Communications problems still exist in some parts of the Third World, but conditions are not nearly as primitive as they were even 15 or 20 years ago.

'Flabbergasted' by Change

Fox Butterfield, who worked abroad for the New York Times from the late 1960s until 1981, when he became chief of the paper's Boston bureau, said he was "flabbergasted" by the improvements he saw in communications when he went to the Philippines for the Times for two months early this year.

"I can think back (to) when you considered yourself lucky to get through at all," Butterfield said. "When I was in Bangladesh for a month at the end of the war (there) in 1971. . . . for the first two weeks, there was literally no way to file. I would stay up all night trying to get a cable through . . . or a phone call . . . knowing I'd go out and get another story the next day and not be able to do anything about it either."

Improved communications systems are not necessarily an unqualified benefit.

Faster communication increases the pressure on correspondents abroad to file their stories as quickly as possible--sometimes too quickly, without sufficient time for reporting and reflection, says H. D. S. Greenway, former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and now associate editor for national and foreign news at the Boston Globe.

This is particularly true, Greenway and others said, of television reporters abroad. The pressure to get the story fast and put it on the satellite for the evening news even faster results in "instant news, with no context," said Steve Singer, an "ABC Close-Up" producer who has worked on documentaries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Western Europe.

TV Often Calls Shots

What makes this especially alarming is that television increasingly sets the agenda for foreign news coverage on major stories.

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