The Democratic Republic of Congo, 2002. Two wars since 1996 have killed more than five million people. CreditPaolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

LISBON — THE Western news media are in crisis and are turning their back on the world. We hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for years or months, reporters now handle 20 countries each. Bureaus are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive bungalows or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.

To the consumer, the news can seem authoritative. But the 24-hour news cycles we watch rarely give us the stories essential to understanding the major events of our time. The news machine, confused about its mandate, has faltered. Big stories are often missed. Huge swaths of the world are forgotten or shrouded in myth. The news both creates these myths and dispels them, in a pretense of providing us with truth.

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I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a stringer, a freelance journalist paid by the word, for a year and a half, in 2005-06. There, on the bottom rung of the news ladder, I grasped the role of the imaginary in the production of world news. Congo is the scene of one of the greatest man-made disasters of our lifetimes. Two successive wars have killed more than five million people since 1996.

Yet this great event in human history has produced no sustained reporting. No journalist is stationed consistently on the front lines of the war telling us its stories. As a student in America, where I was considering a Ph.D. in mathematics and a job in finance, I would read 200-word stories buried in the back pages of newspapers. With so few words, speaking of events so large, there was a powerful sense of dissonance. I traveled to Congo, at age 22, on a one-way ticket, without a job or any promise of publication, with only a little money in my pocket and a conviction that what I would witness should be news.

When I arrived, there were only three other foreign reporters in Congo. We were all based in the capital, Kinshasa, while the war raged more than 600 miles to the east. My colleagues lived well: one in a luxury hotel suite, another in an immense colonial home with servants and guards. I envied them. To make matters worse, shortly after arriving I was robbed at gunpoint.

I found work as a stringer for The Associated Press, and rented a room from a family in a run-down home in one of Kinshasa’s poorest but most lively areas. The house frequently lacked water and electricity, and neighborhood children would run through it after playing in sewage. It became The A.P.’s headquarters in Congo.

I shared with my host family the only meal they ate each day. I helped draw the curtains and hid with them when a band of street boys pillaged our neighborhood. I was present when their baby first crawled.

My proximity to people was essential to my reporting. They were as surprised as I was by news of a rape or a political killing — especially if it wasn’t in the war-torn east of the country.

But the world outside is rarely surprised by a Congolese death. Those same rapes and killings were not deemed important enough to make news. Ignored, they were soon forgotten. The world saw Congo as a violent place, but not worth reporting on, unless the story was spectacular and gruesome.

Joy was often ignored.

Few Congolese, even in the war, see themselves as victims. The idea of their victimhood is imagined, and the news in these moments seems to be speaking to itself.

Our stories about others tell us more about ourselves.

The telltale sign of such mythical, distant reporting is a distinct assuredness. Confusion and vulnerability are stripped away, as are the subtleties and contradictions of life. People and places are reduced to simple narratives — good and evil, victim and killer. Such narratives can be easy to digest. But they tell us only a portion of the story.

A few months ago I traveled to a remote town in the Central African Republic that had just been burned and destroyed by the government. The town, now empty, was believed to have sheltered anti-government militiamen during a battle. Bodies were strewn across the bush, quickly decomposing, beside baby clothes dropped by fleeing mothers. On my way back from the town I saw groups of outraged militiamen who wanted to fight back. There was little reporting from there at that time; The government had been demonized and the militiamen portrayed as victims. African Union and French peacekeepers tried to curb the fighting by disarming government forces. But the militiamen, unchecked, began widespread massacres.

News from a distance worsens these problems. Living among Congolese, I was continually held accountable for what I wrote, whether about killings and rapes, election politics or Pygmy tribes who had given away sections of forest to foreign logging companies for some sacks of salt.

A WARLORD once told me that war crimes were more comprehensible than crimes in times of peace; the world didn’t realize, he said, that such atrocities were committed in times of confusion. He didn’t deny that war crimes should be punished, but merely asked to be understood. He had become a warlord when armed men had stormed into his home and killed his daughter. Unable to protect his family, he had formed a militia. His subsequent brutality, whose targets included other fathers and daughters, was criminal. It would be easy to dismiss him as evil. His story tells us that his context produced evil.

Such immersive reporting is essential if news is to serve its purpose and help us construct any real sense of the world.

News systems are not designed for this. Reporters move like herds of sheep, flocking to the same places at the same times to tell us, more or less, the same stories. Foreign bureaus are closing. We are moving farther away.

News organizations tell us that immersive reporting is prohibitively expensive. But the money is there; it’s just often misallocated on expensive trips for correspondents. Even as I was struggling to justify costs for a new round of reporting in Congo, I watched teams of correspondents stay in $300-per-night hotels, spending in one night what I would in two months. And they missed the story.

Parachuting in with little context, and with a dozen other countries to cover, they stayed for the vote but left before the results were announced. A battle broke out in Kinshasa after they left, and I found myself hiding in an old margarine factory, relaying news to the world, including reports to this newspaper.

News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves. Stories from there, and from places like the killing fields of the Central African Republic, are still distant, and they are growing smaller.

By Published On: July 29th, 2014Comments Off on Anjan Sundaram: We’re Missing the Story — The Media’s Retreat From Foreign Reporting

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