This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
There is nothing very dramatic, for instance, about a water shortage and the red tape in which a well-drilling project was bogged down. Yet this situation probably has a more far-reaching effect on both the military and political status of the area than all the battles fought there to date.
This kind of thing is called “feature material,” or “the news behind the news,” generally published deep inside newspapers, if at all. This is reasonable, since editors know their readers are much less concerned with water shortages than with more spectacular developments.
In short, I believe one of the deficiencies of reporting is in the news consumer himself. He gets exactly as much substantial information as he asks for—neither more, nor less.
Still, the main responsibility for news falls on the correspondent, and part of that responsibility is in keeping his readers interested enough to read on.
Foreign correspondents must work harder than other kinds of newsmen, because they have so much more to cover. Even with the largest staff of assistants of any news organization in Viet Nam, I still have found a seven-day-a-week schedule necessary. This is a country where communications are primitive, and in which different conditions apply in every one of the forty-three provinces.
Many newsmen here have no assistance at all, even though South Viet Nam has dominated headline play for years. Most correspondents wish all news organizations would expand their foreign staffs. But for practical, financial reasons, this usually is impossible. Correspondents are expensive.
Another problem is that newsmen sometimes lack the necessary background in covering foreign assignments, particularly when the newsmen are only given a few days or weeks in a particular country. Resident correspondents have the advantage of on-the-job training and eventually become qualified to do the basic investigation and research themselves. Visitors must rely on translators, official spokesmen, and dozens of other second-hand sources who may or may not be trying to sell them a bill of goods.
I think it is significant that the late President Diem, who so deeply disliked and distrusted the Western press, frequently received visiting newsmen and women, but never granted interviews to resident correspondents. He knew that they knew too much.
The problems that have beset correspondents reporting the crises of Viet Nam are not new, and they will continue in various forms here and throughout the world. Reporting will, at times, be inaccurate, deficient, or misleading. But despite his or her shortcomings, the foreign correspondent, in my mind, is one of the most fundamentally honest and dedicated human beings in the world. He loves the challenge of a really tough story more than any other opportunity, and has given up a lot of comforts to grasp this challenge.
As long as there are men and women who fit this pattern, reporting from abroad will always drag the basic truth from the snares of crisis.