Twelve years ago BBC correspondent Philippa Thomas was literally picked up and put in her place during the U.S. presidential campaign season.
“Truth and Consequences”
– Adrienne LaFrance“Armed only with a portable radio recorder and mic, I got myself through a scrum surrounding [2000 Democratic hopeful Bill] Bradley,” Thomas recalled in an e-mail. “Then my feet left the ground as I was physically lifted up and back from the candidate by a minder who had already told me ‘No.’
“As my colleagues would tell you, I’m small but hardly shy. But I was so surprised I was speechless. That was, thank goodness, a one-off. But an extreme example of the attitude: ‘Why should we? Your listeners don’t vote.'”
Thomas, a 2011 Nieman Fellow in the throes of covering her fourth U.S. presidential campaign for the BBC, is used to pleading her case with campaigns. “The BBC News website has massive American readership and a lot of what it publishes is shared on Facebook and Twitter,” Thomas wrote. “A lot of the politicians know it: I reckon my challenge covering current U.S. campaigns is to persuade the gatekeepers that the BBC is seen, heard and read by enough key voters to get us on their lists.”
With the Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaigns intensely focused on reaching voters, foreign media outlets have little or no chance of gaining access. All the same, international audiences have a deep interest in the election.
In fact, more than 2,000 reporters from foreign news organizations covered the 2012 Republican and Democratic national conventions. They were among the 15,000 with press credentials.
“American elections are considered great fun—a fantastic circus—and therefore they get a huge following [in Finland], be it 1992 or 2012,” said 2004 Nieman Fellow Pekka Mykkanen, who covered the 2004 and 2008 campaigns for Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s leading daily.
In 2008, Mykkanen’s stories about the U.S. election were consistently among his paper’s most popular articles online. Not only was Obama’s candidacy historic but, Mykkanen observed, “It had become clear—more than most of the time—that U.S. behavior affects everyone’s lives from war and peace issues to people’s economic well-being.”
Of course, readers in Finland or anywhere with Internet access can always get to U.S.-based media like The New York Times or CNN for coverage, but many still rely on correspondents for their U.S. news. “Foreign correspondents are needed, just as the U.S. regional papers still need their reporters in Washington,” he adds.
Mykkanen has also covered elections in China, Greece and Liberia, as well as the independence referendum in East Timor. “I always find elections a great way to explain foreign countries to the readers,” he wrote. “Elections are like a train and your readers are passengers traveling through that society’s landscape.”
What’s unique about the U.S. presidential campaign is “the speed, the madness, the randomness.”
“In the U.S., there are countless mini scandals that end up in the news cycle whereas some big topics—such as wars, health care and fiscal health—get ignored,” he continued. “Every country goes more or less crazy during elections, but America goes the craziest.”