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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

American Journalism Seen From Overseas

One of the pleasures of the last few years has been to meet with foreign journalists. These are usually young-ish people who are invited to come to the United States usually for a three week whirlwind tout of the country, courtesy of the US Department of State International Visitors Program.

The State Department uses the extraordinary resources of a few not-for-profits such as Delphi International and World Learning for International Development. These organizations are staffed by some talented and committed people who understand the need for America to be better understood by the movers and shakers who agree to come to the US, often for the first time.

I have met with dozens of these groups over the past years. I am always astounded, and mostly delighted that seven years of US foreign policies have done little to dampen the hopes and admiration these visitors have for our country.

My role is to talk a bit about US media and the strengths and weaknesses as I see them. As a former NPR News Ombudsman, I want to address the power of the US media, especially in these politically transitional and economically difficult times. Most of all, I tell them that Americans have a deep and abiding belief and respect for the 1st Amendment - a concept that is often hard to grasp by journalists who come from places where their rights as citizens are often trampled and where their colleagues are routinely jailed and sometimes murdered.

The discussion gets down to details pretty quickly. "How can we get the public and the politicians to trust us?" they ask. What a good question. I tell them that in America, we ask ourselves the same question. Although I quickly add that it's usually more important for the public to trust us, than it is for the politicians.

I hesitate to offer too much advice. In a previous incarnation at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, I was part of a group that went overseas to help journalists who were working in what was euphemistically called "transitional" journalism: countries that were moving from Communism to a freemarket economy or certain African countries that had a publically-funded broadcaster but wanted to retain a more professional "arm's length relationship" with the government. The BBC and the CBC were seen as models.

In the 1990's, I did some training in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovenia where the semblance of a free press existed even under Communism. The leap from state broadcaster to public broadcaster was possible, although often fraught. In those countries, the concept of journalistic management was usually equated with Stalinist censorship, so helping the journalists and their managers understand the difference was a challenge.

In Warsaw, for example, the younger staffers at Polskieradio had no trouble grasping the concept of a free press for a free(er) people. Cleverly, management segregated the work force into three groups: the older staffers who only rewrote press releases from the government; a mid-level group who still practiced a form of Stalinist journalism, but were at least, trying (or pretending) to adapt; and a younger group who did a hipper and more recognizable Western-style reporting.

Eventually the first group died out, retired or quit in disgust as this newfangled style of reporting took hold. But this bunch of die-hards was amazing. They refused to type their own scripts; instead these broadcast apparatchiks dictated their stories to peroxided stenographers while everyone puffed away furiously on cheap Russian cigarettes.

Other colleagues from the CBC spent some time in southern Africa, doing training in a post-apartheid South Africa and in Malawi.

In South Africa, the SABC newsrooms were replete with police informers and a wholesale purge of management had to occur before basic journalistic training could happen. At last report, the SABC is doing well and doing good journalism.

At the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, the CBC group tried to explain how to do tough reporting in a western manner. The journalists understood it completely, but two weeks after the CBC trainers departed, all the Malawians who took part were thrown in jail for offending the state through their "disrespectful" reporting.

I'm mindful of what happened in Malawi whenever I meet with foreign journalists. It would be foolish of me and dangerous for the journalists to tell them to go and blithely practice western-style journalism without regard to the consequences.

Instead, I tell them that they need to insure that the public is aware of their efforts and to keep them as part of the process. Journalism, I tell them, needs the public more than ever - whether in their part of the world, or in the good old USA.

Most significantly, these visitors seem relieved to hear that all is not right with American journalism...that we in the US also suffer from self-censorship, from activist judges who jail reporters who won't reveal their sources and from management that prefers to please shareholders and regulators instead of citizens.

We have a few things in common and I always learn much from these extraordinary and brave journalists. I often wonder how these people fare once they are back home. How will they be viewed by their colleagues who remained behind, by their bosses and by their governments? I worry about a latter-day "Malawi Effect."

Even so, I'm glad they were brought here and I sense they are as well. Even if not all of what they see in their visit is pleasing. As another professor reported after meeting with a group of journalists, one Pakistani editor was deeply upset in his first-time visit to America:

"I've been in America for 48 hours and I have one question: Why do all your women look like whores?"

You can't win them all and the State Department deserves our praise for runnning this important program.

I'm meeting with yet another group this week. They have been here observing the primaries and Super Tuesday. I'll report on their impressions - and mine - of our curious electoral system in my next post.

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