Sitting in Chad Gordon’s social science methods course in the fall of 1966, Phil Meyer, then a Nieman Fellow, realized that he could turn the scholarlymethods into tools for newspaper reporting. Combining what he learned from a political science course with the chance to have computers do some of the number crunching, Phil cobbled together what became known as precision journalism. He has carried this notion of reinvention into his present-day journalism classes in Chapel Hill, where he teaches students how to pick the most useful innovations from various disciplines on campus.
I’ve adapted Phil’s interdisciplinary approach to help create planning and evaluation departments at two large U.S. foundations. These experiences have convinced me that journalists preparing for overseas training assignments can heighten the impact of their work by borrowing from the same toolbox.
In starting with risk analysis, for example, three central questions emerge: What can go wrong? What is the likelihood it will go wrong? What are the consequences? Journalists who do this can then work through scenarios to identify the few key variables to track in deciding whether and when to trigger a contingency plan.
Preparing Journalists for Overseas Training
For several years Susan Talalay directed the Knight International Press Fellowship Program for the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), where she is now vice president. The program sends journalists overseas for intense six- to nine-month stretches in which they provide training assistance to media organizations and individual journalists. To prep these Knight Fellows for the experience, Talalay and her colleagues developed a weeklong orientation process, using role-playing exercises and scenario-planning to sharpen their skills at dealing with potential risks. She started keeping a list of real-life problems trainers encountered in various countries that she used with new fellows to prepare them better for what they might encounter.
“We’ve taken situations that have been less than perfect in fellowships and written up composite case studies for use in our orientation sessions,” Talalay says. “I don’t think there’s any benefit in pretending nothing ever goes wrong. That’s just not real life. If we’ve had someone in Uganda and run into problems and we’re sending someone else to Uganda, they need to understand what might happen. I think full disclosure is better.”
The experience of Knight Fellow Bonnie Huang helps new cohorts of fellows navigate complex cultural sensitivities and free-press norms. A veteran broadcast journalist, Huang spent nine months—from 2002 to 2003—in Cambodia and Vietnam. Her assignment: Train journalists to cover elections. Writing in an International Center for Journalists’ publication that reports on the work of the fellows, Huang summed up the barriers she faced in Cambodia:
“From the start, we had many naysayers— chief among them our own team of Khmer journalists. The election unit was supposed to have five reporters, five cameramen, and two editors. One reporter never bothered to show up at the small cobwebbed office that would become our makeshift newsroom for two months. The others expressed doubts that critical views of the government would be approved by station managers who are state employees answering to the ruling party. ‘I’m afraid for my family,’ said a reporter in his late 30’s who eventually dropped out of the project. Security concerns ran rampant among the cameramen, too. They worried about retaliation for presenting dissenting opinions. And with new incidents of political violence running in the headlines, their fears were realistic. When one member of the group declared, ‘I don’t want to be seen on camera,’ others nodded emphatically in agreement. No one wanted to be associated with the risky venture. I had never before heard of TV reporters refusing face time!”
In just a few months, Huang and her Western colleagues overcame many of the barriers and helped Cambodian journalists introduce independent journalism into the election coverage. Persistence paid off. Early on her team of trainers often lost debates over individual editing decisions, Huang explains, “but we won the war.” As they made incremental gains on reporting techniques and a commitment to transparency— eventually airing footage of government guards shoving news cameras out of the way—the public’s demand for high-quality election coverage validated the new approach she was teaching. Once station management adopted Huang’s “respect for principles of independent journalism,” her team could focus on boosting reporters’ skills.
To help train new Knight Fellows, the Knight International Press Fellowship Program relies on Gary Weaver from American University’s School of International Service. Weaver is an expert at preparing executives who are relocating to new countries. In part, the orientation helps fellows come to see themselves as others see them. That is, to see themselves through the eyes of their foreign colleagues. In their orientation, fellows lead mock workshops in which they are confronted with all of the skepticism and reluctance they might face once they hit the ground.
The scenario and role-play work forces fellows to match contingency plans to various hazards. Some problems, such as language barriers, are common to every group of fellows. The program anticipates this by budgeting for interpreters and providing an orientation session on the pitfalls of hiring interpreters. Other problems illustrate the need to handle surprises. In Moldova, at one point, trainers learned programs should not run past nightfall because there was no electricity to keep lights on. Also trainers who go overseas with spouses have encountered difficulties unlike trainers who go alone. In dangerous or difficult situations, antsy spouses may quickly push for a return trip home.
Evaluating the Preparation
Lee Becker, director of University of Georgia’s Cox Center, conducted an extensive evaluation of the Knight International Press Fellowship Program in 1999 and found the approach of Talalay and her staff produced real results. From face-to-face interviews with 531 journalists who had been affected by the training work of 33 fellows in 11 countries in Europe and Latin America from 1994 through 1998, Becker found evidence of the program’s impact on journalists’ attitudes and their professional practices. Among Becker’s findings:
- More than 60 percent said the fellows had a positive impact on their career goals and ambitions and their understanding of journalism’s basics.
- More than 60 percent reported that the fellows had a positive impact on their view of news and their understanding of the role of the press in a democratic society.
- Seventy-two percent said the fellows had a positive impact on their approach to doing the job.
- Fifty percent reported writing different types of stories as a result of their work with the Knight Fellows, and 7 in 10 said the quality of stories had changed.
- About 2 in 10 journalists believed the fellows’ impact was even greater, reporting that the fellows contributed to the economic stability of media in the host country. Some of this assessment might be the result of fellows’ impact on institutions, either by establishing media centers (Moldova, Ukraine) or improving the quality of existing centers (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Russia) or university programs (Poland, Chile).
“The more time the fellow spent with those with whom she or he worked, the more likely there was to be impact,” Becker writes in the evaluation. “The more varied the types of interaction between the fellow and the persons with whom she or he worked, the greater the reported levels of impact. In other words, it is better to spend a week with the training program than a day, but it also is better, regardless of amount of time spent, to meet socially with the ‘students’ outside the session, go with them on assignments and talk one-on-one, than it is to do any one of these things by itself.”
Approaches That Work
These findings and Talalay’s use of reallife cases force journalists to confront the kind of “outside view” that researchers have found helps people calibratetheir expectations to something closer to reality. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Dan Lovallo and Daniel Kahneman prescribe the possession of an “outside view” as a way to remedy “delusional optimism.” Without this kind of reality check, trainers might tend to inflate their expectations for performance.
Talalay’s approach yields an additional benefit that goes beyond preparing fellows for specific scenarios. The role-playing forces fellows to practice new ways of thinking about situations. It’s a skill that Karl Weick, a psychology professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, calls “sensemaking,” which he contends is a better predictor of success than one’s ability to follow a linear plan. Instead of overplanning—particularly when the context is shifting all around us—Weick suggests using the method of establishing “just enough guidelines to keep people moving.” It’s not our ability to follow a predetermined script that helps us succeed in unpredictable settings. Instead, it’s our “mindfulness” in reacting to all kinds of signals around us, including even the slightest hints that failure lurks around the next corner. In the Harvard Business Review article, Weick says highly effective organizations and individuals are fixated on failure. This concentrated focus permits them to “distinguish themselves by being able to detect incredibly weak warning signs and then taking strong, decisive action.”
Experienced journalists are nimble enough to succeed in dicey situations and should resist any temptation to craft an overly precise, linear plan. In fact, the unpredictable nature of overseas situations might require fellows to dodge what is often the key question in any linear evaluation model: How will success be defined? Until overseas trainers get to know the interests of the particular individuals with whom they’ll work, they are unlikely to be able to specify terms of success. It’s good to show up prepared to teach about free press values, but trainers cannot ignore a discovery that the intended beneficiaries want technology training more than anything else. Or the discovery that journalists exerting free press ideals are likely to be murdered.
These realities place a premium on trainers gathering base-line information on the interests, strengths and needs of the journalists and media organizations with whom they will be doing this training. Using short questionnaires, either on paper or by e-mail, trainers can systematically gain a lot of knowledge about these people’s views and expectations, including the journalists’ attitudes toward free press ideals, their knowledge of technology, and issues of ethics and press standards. Trainers can also get explicit descriptions of what their clients most want to accomplish and what they fear most.
Gaining this information about current circumstances means that trainers arrive with a base line they can use to compare developments along the way. By making explicit what often remains only implicit also enables better learning to occur along the way. When this information- gathering moment is missed, there is no way to recreate it or to capture retroactively what was understood or expected before the trainer arrived. Doing this shouldn’t be difficult for reporters, who by their own nature and training are good at listening, gathering data, and determining its context.
Seeking such information is also a smart approach for two other reasons. The first emerges out of Becker’s findings that show overseas journalists believe they also have things to teach trainers, thus making this a two-way exchange of knowledge and ideas. When Becker looked at the effects the overseas training had on the fellows, he found that:
- Nearly all fellows said the experience had a “positive influence” on their lives.
- Many pointed to “personal growth” as a primary benefit, which was often the result of learning the history or culture of other countries or learning to deal with new situations.
- For some fellows, the experience led to a second career, either as a teacher or as a volunteer for additional foreign opportunities.
- The nature of the impact was influenced by the fellow’s career stage. For many of the younger fellows, the experience was a “turning point” in their careers (as is found with Peace Corps alumni). For older fellows, the experience was less about selfdiscovery and more about the world and the way journalism functions in other cultures.
Secondly, trainers can have as much impact through natural networks of journalists as they can through direct contact with a few individuals. This insight puts a premium on trainers obsessively tracking contact information for everyone they reach and, in turn, for the individuals these people reach. In popular books, such as “The Tipping Point” and “Linked,” the importance of mapping individuals’ professional networks to uncover the most influential hubs is highlighted. In gathering baseline data, trainers should document the journalists’ networks and seek out contact information. On whom do these journalists rely for professional advice? Who calls on them for advice? By connecting with these network contacts—easier today thanks to e-mail—trainers can establish virtual learning communities that can persist beyond the duration of their overseas stay.
In the end, the most apt metaphor for overseas training experiences might come from evaluator Michael Patton, who observes that being in an emergent situation can feel as though you are walking through a maze where the walls shift with each step. Or when four people are walking through the maze together, and the walls shift again with each step each person takes. When this happens, trainers need to rely on real-time feedback loops to recalibrate the context—and then also their expectations— again and again. It can become more like monitoring a hurricane or babysitting triplets than following a recipe for coconut cake. Principles of rationality are out the window, and no amount of planning will prepare trainers for these circumstances.
Contrary to the usual cautionary guidance, Weick advises that sometimes, at moments like this, a person has to “leap in order to look …. Once you start to act, you can flesh out your interpretations and rework them. But it’s the action itself that gets you moving again.”
John Bare is vice president for strategic planning and evaluation at the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in Atlanta. From 1997-2004, Bare was director of planning and evaluation at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami.