A Brief Philosophy of Journalism Training and Development
Journalists in developing democracies from Romania to Burma to South Sudan tell me they often wonder, “What’s the point?” They can’t write the stories they want to write, and if they do the censors happily shred them. Their lives are hard. The hours are long, the pay is low. In some countries, taxi drivers enjoy more prestige than journalists. In some regions journalists risk their lives to print the truth. Why would anyone want to be a journalist under those conditions?
Because the best journalists everywhere want to empower their readers and audiences to fight injustice – to right wrongs. People can’t care about what they don’t know about. Something must be done, and in every corner of the world, journalists step forward to give the people the information they need to understand their world, to build their lives, families and nations – to demand justice. Democracy rides on the backs of journalists.
The courage to become a journalist in a developing democracy and the dedication to persist against adversity come naturally to good journalists. But the skills and values of the craft have to be learned, the institutions developed. That’s where journalism trainers come in. Since 2002, as American newspapers compromised, shriveled or disappeared altogether, I have been privileged to work with bold, idealistic journalists in places where journalism is just being invented, where newspapers are growing in circulation – where one can see journalism shape the future day by day, story by story. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun.
When I return from places like Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, colleagues in the United States asked me how it went.
“Well, I didn’t hurt anybody,” I’ll say.
“You set some pretty low standards,” one friend recently quipped.
But “do no harm” should be the No. 1 rule of journalism training. In all things, the safety and identity of trainees is paramount. Depending on time and place, a journalist’s mere participation in a training course can be sufficient cause for arrest. Being photographed at a restaurant table with the wrong people can result in harsh interrogation. The foreign trainer is rarely in danger. The local journalist, if he or she is doing the job right, is always at risk.
The most effective field technique starts with listening. This is the right time to watch for institutional weaknesses in the newsroom and in the industry as a whole.
Selecting the right participants is the most important part of planning and executing a successful workshop. I look for the most dedicated and well-motivated journalists, those with fire in their bellies and cool heads. These are the editors and reporters who will take journalism to a higher level, who will work for their readers and listeners, and who will survive. I keep lectures to a minimum. Journalism is best learned by doing.
Journalists in developing democracies often feel hopeless, so far behind the developed world. They need to hear that journalists in the United States (and every other developed country) once invented stories to suit their publishers’ or their patriotic purposes, that politicians including U.S. founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton owned or controlled newspapers for the main purpose of attacking their political enemies. They need to hear that American journalists and cops and city officials once took bribes as often as not. They need to know that journalism development is a process, that this is perhaps the most important period for journalism in their countries’ histories, and that they have a critical role to play.
The term sustainability has been overused to the point of losing its meaning in the grant-seeking language of the international aid and development business, including the journalism development industry. But the question of sustainability should frame every effort in the field. Well-conceived projects skillfully staffed and executed can lay the foundation of a country’s journalism development. Other projects that look ingenious on paper, no matter how well executed, can fall apart like houses of cards when the contract ends simply because they lacked the benefit of local common sense. Sustainability is something one feels after becoming sufficiently absorbed and accepted into a country’s media culture, usually not something hypothesized on a grant application.
If I have a specialty, it is strengthening the core values of journalism in a country, establishing a baseline of high journalistic standards from which to build. I have a newspaper background, but I have learned that journalism is journalism, news is news, whether it is read, heard or viewed on whatever new device comes along. Journalism development programs that focus on new technology are critical to the future to be sure, but they can be hollow if they focus on the technology at the expense of the principles of good journalism.
Finally, I believe that journalism properly practiced should be fun. I believe that journalism training should be fun. I have begun almost every training I have ever conducted with a fun, evaluative role-play exercise called “Billy Bob” – so named because of its roots in East Texas. In a playful way, the exercise sets a series of traps using accuracy, ethics and fairness as bait that participants almost always fall for. The exercise, adapted to each culture, informs the trainer of the participants’ skill level and shows the journalists what they can expect to learn during the course. But just as important, it breaks the ice and establishes a professional yet playful atmosphere for the course.
Like I said, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t having fun.
Respectfully, Doug Cosper