In Defense of Western Journalism Training

Friday, June 10, 2011

By Michael Jordan

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Western intervention in Libya – and in the Arab Spring itself – has revived debate over “exporting our values,” especially the kinder, gentler, non-militaristic forms of soft power.

Then along comes James Miller’s exquisitely timed broadside, "Questioning the Western Approach to Training," against one of those soft-power instruments – Western journalism training – in the Spring 2011 issue of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Reports. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributor to the magazine.)

I’m compelled to respond because Miller – a Visiting Professor at the Center for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, Goldsmiths, University of London, on sabbatical from Hampshire College – sounds like he’d dispatch with overseas journalism educators like me. There it is, in black and white, when he derides “media missionaries.”

I do indeed preach the gospel, whether to university students in post-Communist Slovakia and Czech Republic, or in Hong Kong to Chinese students from the heavily censored mainland, or to minority Roma (a.k.a. “Gypsy”) journalists in the Balkans, or to hundreds of international participants in a biennial foreign-correspondent training course in Prague. I’m not unlike the proselytizing, wholesome-looking Mormons I see around the globe, in their white shirts and black name-tags. Except I do my sermonizing in the classroom, about what I call serious, responsible journalism.

In his essay, Miller writes, “This is a time of unprecedented international efforts to codify and inculcate Western-style news reporting and editing – to train on a global scale what its proponents assertively call ‘world journalism’ – in places quite different from American newsrooms and classrooms, with nothing like the journalistic or political-cultural history of North America and Western Europe.” It’s unclear if he’s calling for a less-Western, more sensitive style to such training, or urging that it be scaled down altogether. Both views are wrong.

He cites the case of post-Communist Eastern Europe – a place I know well, after 16 years as a foreign correspondent out here. “Cold War modernization theory,” says Miller, has fostered “a surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism” as a “necessary means of democratization.”

My question for Professor Miller: What’s wrong with that? I teach the principles of American watchdog journalism. If someone wants to dress them up as “world journalism,” to de-emphasize the American-ness of my perspective, fine by me. Yet these journalistic values are in fact universal values. Don’t we ALL want the same of our elected or appointed leaders: accountability for their words and deeds? For them to justify and defend their actions – and be held responsible if things head south?

Watchdog journalism is unquestionably a “necessary means of democratization,” vital to any effort to entrench the holy trinity of state, rule of law, and accountability. I teach students to not only document what the situation is – “Any chimp can do that,” I cajole them – but I emphasize the real skill is to delve into why exactly the situation is the way it is. Wouldn’t ordinary Syrians, or Chinese, or Botswanans like to know what their leaders are really up to? And why exactly they’re doing what they’re doing? Is that just a Western curiosity, a Western right?

More troubling, Miller offers no alternative. It’s as if his point is that because our media system is flawed, at times ugly, with a “less tidy” history of muckraking, investigative reporting, Who are we to export our ideals? As he paints it, any Western concept promoted to those with a different “journalistic or political-cultural history” is inherently colonialist and ineffectual.

“International journalism training can have the feel of a quite rigid, institutionalized sense of what must be done even while operating in an environment of increasing contingency and dynamic change—perhaps yesterday’s solutions to tomorrow’s problems,” he writes. I can only speak for myself, not for every other trainer and program. But I’d lend credence to Miller’s assessment if he’d offered evidence that he actually sat through some of these trainings. I found not one shred.

Let me turn this around on Miller. Does he advocate a training that does not teach the importance of holding elites accountable for their actions? Or that journalists should give leaders “the benefit of the doubt”? Or that it’s OK to avoid asking taboo questions on taboo subjects? If yes, then I want no part of that training. Or, does Miller think we Westerners should keep our mouths shut altogether?

Miller alludes to do-it-yourself citizen journalism, touting the “entrepreneurs at home who are daily inventing replacements for the mainstream news practices that most international journalism training persistently advocates abroad.” His essay is also part of a remarkable Nieman Reports edition, as journalists across post-Communist Eastern Europe describe the dangers of investigating local corruption. Miller credits their courage, but asks, “Did the writers require Western training programs?” Fair question. Go ask the scores of East European journalists assisted by the Danish non-profit, SCOOP.

Now, Miller and I are both Americans, shaped by an open, pluralistic environment with a long tradition of independent media. I went to journalism school (the world’s first, at the University of Missouri), been a correspondent for top-quality publications like the Christian Science Monitor, and sat for three years on the George Polk Awards committee, at Long Island University. I’ve learned at the knee of some of the best our profession has to offer, and that's what I try to teach.

Billions around the world experience the opposite: closed, autocratic rule, with little to no tradition of freedom of thought or expression. Sure, I concede that some of these people, once they shed this yoke, may boast innate instincts for hard-hitting reportage. Yet Western journalism trainers can surely help open eyes about how to secure newly won freedoms.

Call me crazy, but I’m guessing that a dose of “world journalism” would help the cause of Egyptian and Tunisian journalists, who for decades were docile lapdogs to the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. As we speak, I'll bet they're clamoring for more Western colleagues to advise them on what role they can play in this alien democratizing process, how to seriously and responsibly explore the new political and economic forces that will drive their countries into the future, and other such challenges.

So what we need is more Western journalism training, not less. We should encourage our fellow global denizens to occasionally stir the pot in pursuit of shared, universal ideals, like transparency, free and fair elections, human rights, rule of law, social justice. And if we happen to win a few “hearts and minds” with this use of soft power – minimally, through journalist-to-journalist collegiality – so much the better.

[This commentary originally appeared June 6, 2011, in Harvard's Nieman Reports.]

How Writing Is Like BikingRoma in the Red Sludge
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Sorry to disagree with Mr. Miller, but I would say we need less "citizen journalism", not more and we should not be advocating it as the way to do journalism in this new age... The citizen journalist can provide an authentic taste and voice to a story, but as you suggest, he/she lacks the scope to put what they are seeing into that broader context, to ask why events are occurring. We also must ask what the motivations of the citizen journalist are - honest documentation of an event in their lives, or an attempt at agitprop? We can't know from snippets culled from YouTube. Unfortunately reliance on the citizen journalist is another sign of the creeping laziness in mainstream journalism. Some guy in Cairo has a flipcam? Great, we don't have to fly in a correspondent... Good piece Michael, but I'd say that the mainstream US press could use a refresher on the Western Approach to Reporting as well. I see instances of sloppiness on CNN and in the NYT that my old journalism would never let me get away with occur with alarming regularity. -ed.
 
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Any impulse to universalize a value should be challenged and questioned. Mr. Miller has a point when he insists on accounting for and allowing for differences in journalistic and political-cultural histories. For centuries the supposed universal values of humanism were used as rationales for colonization, revealing the definition of "human" to be white, male, and European, and the altruistic solution was to uplift those who didn't match this description to "human" level through inculturation. While justice and freedom might be goals shared by people of all races and nationalities, the processes by which these goals are achieved must be shaped and informed by local cultures and local values. What might work in America can (and does) backfire and fail elsewhere. I have no objection to Libyan journalists studying American journalism principles; I do object, however, to those principles being presented as the correct, only way to do journalism, and even more to that mode of journalism being labeled "world journalism." The saving grace of this situation is that imported values never survive assimilation intact; they are always translated, modified, even subverted, to conform to the receiving culture. Even then, as other countries rise to power in the future, and national events have increasingly global impacts, and the global playing field is leveled further, America will have to learn the other ways there are of skinning a cat.
 
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Yes, we should not be locked into thinking that Western values are universal values. But that said, while there can be differences in format, narrative structure, presentation, etc. to suit cultural norms, if at its core journalism - Western or otherwise - must be clear, factual and objective. If it is not then it is mere propaganda. "World" journalism could do a lot worse than to adopt the principles of accuracy and objectivity. - e.
 

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Michael J. Jordan is a Lesotho-based foreign correspondent who has reported from two dozen countries over the past 17 years.