Why are foreign outlets breaking stories in English?

As the world’s media landscape becomes increasingly globalised, news outlets are more aware than ever of their potential to reach a transnational audience.

Late last month, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) joined the likes of Al Jazeera and France 24 in launching a 24-hour English news channel. In an effort to reach a wider global audience, DW now offers round-the-clock English content in the form of feature reports, talk shows, interviews and documentaries. DW Director General, Peter Limbourg, said that the “channel allows more scope to meet demand for information from Germany”.

The trend is shifting from English-language publications pursuing English speakers based in foreign markets to foreign-language publications pursuing English speakers globally. In a 2014 article written for the Media Briefing, Jasper Jackson and Chris Sutcliffe explained that even though some foreign outlets have witnessed a healthy growth, many have run into a “hard cap” on readership size that simply doesn’t exist when it comes to English language content.

It seems like DW’s move is part of this trend. But some international outlets are taking it a step further by breaking news in English even before reporting in their native language.

Remember the “NSA tapped Hollande’s phone” scandal in June? If so, you probably heard about it because Mediapart – the French investigative news website – published the story in English first. The article revealed confidential WikiLeaks documents suggesting America’s National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on at least three French presidents. Given the news site’s reputation for exposés and its commitment to political investigations, it was no surprise to see such a report. What was surprising was that the outlet chose to break the story in English.

Many understandably assume that a move like this is all about audience numbers (and therefore ultimately about revenue). Prior to Mediapart’s English division launching, its Editor Graham Terse noted, “French journalism and English language journalism are two different beasts, and we hope we can sufficiently meet the challenge of bridging this gap”. But are readers really going to visit the French section of Mediapart’s website because they have read a story in English? Will Brits in France set their homepage to Mediapart in preference to the BBC?

While there are of course commercial benefits to publishing content in English, it feels like the drive for bigger audience figures isn’t the full story. Journalistic imperatives may be more at stake. Guardian digital strategy director, Wolfgang Blau, said “It’s about being heard in conversations in many topics that are actually global, if not at least transnational conversations …these are inherently English conversations”. In other words, breaking a story in English allows an outlet to be a part of the global conversation – and even potentially to shape it.

Mediapart could have broken the WikiLeaks investigation in French. But publishing it in English gave the story immediate global traction. Within hours it was on websites all over the world, from the BBC to Reuters and CNN. The next morning it was on newspaper front pages. Obama called Hollande the next day to “affirm our unwavering commitment to the bilateral relationship”. More importantly, nearly every article acknowledged Mediapart’s integral role in the investigation.

Off the back of this story, Mediapart has cemented its position as a leading voice in the global discussion around inter-governmental espionage. For better or for worse, Mediapart seems to recognise that tapping into a global digital market and being at the forefront of international debate may be more important than “bridging the gap” between two languages. It’s not just about audience – it’s also about influence.

Written By

Olivia Harvey