On Foreign Corresponding
By Rhea Wessel
During my international affairs studies at Columbia University in 1997, a professor made his poor students quantify the amount of international news that appeared in the American media. I chose to measure with a ruler the inches of international copy in the New York Times every day for a month. The result: No more than 5% of one of the most international newspapers in the U.S. was devoted to coverage outside American borders.
Even with expanded coverage of faraway lands after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, media studies have shown that interest in international stories hasn’t really increased. Actually, international news appearing in the U.S. media may be on the decline. From my perch in Frankfurt, I observe as the major news organizations are forced to cut back on their correspondents due to falling ad revenues and a negative economic situation. When the economy is in decline, the “extras” – foreign correspondents and international sections – go first.
I have chosen to live and work as a freelance correspondent because I want to present the world on a platter to my fellow Americans. My life has been greatly enriched by my travels and the people I have met along the way. My eyes are constantly being opened as I confront ideas that are fundamentally different from the ones I hold. In short, I see the world as my classroom and anyone who is willing to listen as my student.
I grew up in a normal, middle-class white American family. I considered studying abroad in Spain during my junior year of high school, but I couldn’t bear to miss the prom. Then my brother set off around the world on Semester at Sea on the recommendation of one of his professors from Baylor University. When I was a junior in college, I found a way to make it happen for me, too.
Semester at Sea is a floating university that takes 600 undergraduates around the world each semester. It was during Semester at Sea that I learned how to learn. I learned to exercise all my senses in a holistic learning experience. More importantly, the trip around the world gave me the basic confidence I needed to start asking questions about the world around me. People could no longer brush off my questions as those from someone who was totally inexperienced.
After returning from the trip and graduating from George Washington University, I moved to Germany. The last two years of my five-year stint were spent working as a correspondent for the English service of the German Press Agency dpa. My editors frequently had to tell me to calm down. I was rearing to go and thrilled by the opportunity to investigate a new country through feature writing.
In 1998, graduate diploma in hand, I arrived in Anniston, Alabama, as the features writer for a small and special newspaper. The Anniston Star has a unique spot in the world of American journalism and in my heart. The paper works to bring international stories home and make the wider world relevant to readers in Calhoun County. I mined the hills of northeast Alabama in search of international stories. I came up with more than a few.
To my surprise, the Anniston Star sent me to Russia in November 1998 to write about how Alabama chicken was feeding hungry Russians. This soulful and thoughtful idea was the creation of executive editor Chris Waddle. Chris and my editor, Cathi Downing, saw me through the trip and the half dozen stories that came out of it.
The main story that ran on Thanksgiving Day was a cross-cultural story that wrapped in politics, economics and human interest. It was one of the first stories in which I shared diverse cultures over the dinner table. Now I have come to see writing about food as one of the best ways to share the world.
In fact, one of my first experiences with non-Americans was food related. As a teenager, I traveled with my church group to a town in Mexico. The men and boys built a well in the village of 100, and the women and girls prepared the meals. I could not converse well with my hostesses, but we communicated by baking and breaking bread together.
M.F.K. Fisher, author of the Gastronomical Me, summed up the idea well: “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”