Foreign Correpondents Reporting From Afar

Reporting Today:
the Satellite Phone and the Internet










While laptop computers and cellular phones have permanently changed the way foreign correspondents report and send dispatches, another techological wonder has altered the very nature of the business: the satellite phone.

A satellite phone

Satellite phones lets correspondents transmit text, sound and video without the need of any land based lines. A correspondent could then transmit any of this information back to the main office in the United States from almost any point on the planet. It became famous during CNN's coverage of the Gulf War when Peter Arnett used it to broadcast live from the heart of Baghdad while the bombs were falling. Ratings for CNN skyrocketed and continuous, live news coverage on cable found its potential in such crises with the immediacy it can bring.

Stephen Hess observed in his book on foreign correspondents that every technological advance affecting foreign correspondence means this information is transmitted and reproduced closer to the moment when it happens or gets journalists closer to the event while not changing the basis nature of how the news is reported.

However, there are caveats to this scenario. In particular, the possibility for error increases with speed, particularly when constant newscasts run information as they get it with little in the way of double-checking. Real-time broadcasting also forces journalists to rush to judgment.

The recent war in Kosovo provided again brought home the power of immediate images of an unfolding crisis. This time around, technology kept information flowing at "an unheard of speed," as one NBC producer put it. Many analysts said once the action was over that the satellite phone, now only a few thousand dollars compared to $20,000 during the Gulf War, was the key to putting together all the available information. Some likened the satellite phone's development to that of radio for World War Two, television for Vietnam, and 24-hour cable in the Gulf War.

"The ability of a reporter on the Macedonian border to call a reporter in Brussels or Washington instantly made a huge difference. Newspapers were able to put together groups of reporters to do joint efforts in a way that was previously impossible," Andrew Rosenthal, the foreign editor of The New York Times, said after the conflict.

During the war, anyone with the Internet suddenly had access to Web sites providing much information and covering the spectrum of potential points of view: Serb, Albanian, Republican, Democrat, from the BBC's incredible depth of coverage to the passionately nationalist Belgrade newspaper Politika.

But the rise of Web-based news providers has also spawned a new type of journalist who must put together hybrid stories of text, photos and sound.

When student riots were seizing Indonesia's capital Jakarta in the spring of 1998, Kari Huus was there as a Seattle-based correspondent for Huus, a specialist on China, had formerly worked for both Newsweek and National Public Radio.

Riots in Jakarta, 1998.

While Huus put together conventional stories of written copy to be sent back to Seattle, she also recorded interviews and ambient sound outside the Indonesian parliament building, took photos with a still camera and recorded video.

A technical producer accompanied Huus to help her combine the media into one story for the Web site. And since all her tools were digital, Huus could send all this back to MSNCB via her laptop. This multi-media story allows users to read, see and hear just what is going on, and since it's online, links can be added to the story so they can look for more information elsewhere.

And Huus can interact with her users through e-mail. In fact, Huus received story tips from people in Indonesia.

But even with such technological advances, communication with the home office can go awry. Covering a story in the Phillipines once, Huus had trouble keeping an Internet connection. Her laptop battery had died and the hotel room's power outlet was on the other side of the room from the telephone.

Sitting in the middle of the room with her computer power line and the telephone line completely stretched, Huus held her computer in her lap. But the connections kept going down. "Finally, I fell asleep on the floor on top of my computer." And the story never did make it out.

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Last Updated: December 7, 1999