The road to becoming a journalist often travels through some kind of organized training and education in journalism in which a person learns about journalistic values and methods that are universally agreed upon. But the practice of journalism can be a peculiar, subjective, local and original activity. So when it comes to training that takes place outside of one’s own country, the use of language to convey thoughts, as well as the particular aspects of cultural and social concepts, tend to narrow the limits of what can be accomplished through journalistic training abroad. Here are some thoughts I’ve heard expressed in various places I’ve gone to work with journalists:
- Here we have been steeped in the traditions of Anglo-Saxon journalism, and therefore we adhere to the principle of nonintervention in private life. (Nicosia, Cyprus)
- We are broadcasting from Brussels, but our target audience are Kurds, so we cannot exactly decide on what approach to adopt. (Brussels, Belgium)
- There are some Turkish words that we use in Greek also but they have different meanings than in the Turkish you use. (Alexandroupolis, Greece)
I have been giving lectures in media ethics, civic journalism, and radio journalism for nearly 10 years, initially and most of all through Galatasaray University and other various institutions of higher education in Istanbul, as well as at training seminars attended by local radio and television journalists in Turkey. My own training in journalism happened between 1983-84 at Centre de Formation et de Perfectionnement des Journalistes in Paris within the “Journalist in Europe” program, which has sadly been closed, and as a 2000 Nieman Fellow.
As a media trainer, I’ve worked abroad twice at the training seminars organized in Cyprus by the European Journalism Centre, attended by Turkish and Greek Cypriot journalists, two other times with the Turkish-Greek border correspondents’ group (at Alexandroupolis and Xomotini) and five times at training meetings organized in Brussels and Cologne for Kurdish and Turkish television journalists.
What Qualifies a Trainer?
Without doubt, training seminars abroad are different in a number of aspects from lectures and seminars held at home. Before dissecting these differences, let me share a related experience, conveyed by National Public Radio Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin at the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) meeting held in Istanbul in September 2003. Here is the story he shared with us:
“I received an invitation from the State Department. Its wording was something to the effect of ‘We would like to invite you to participate in a series of training seminars we will organize in Iraq for training local journalists and would like you to share your expertise and journalistic approach with your Iraqi colleagues if you deem it appropriate.’ Upon a first reading of the invitation, I had thought it might be all right. When I went home in the evening I discussed it with my wife, and I think she became a bit tense at first because of the war situation in Iraq. However, she then said to me, ‘Journalistic training in Iraq, eh? Is that journalistic imperialism?’ When I thought about what she said I tended to agree with her. First of all, I could not speak any Arabic. I didn’t know anything about Iraqi journalism, either. Moreover, considering the fact that the armed forces of the nation of which I was a member had a presence in Iraq, I tried to figure out how I would be perceived by my Iraqi colleagues as a journalist trainer of that nation. I decided to decline the State Department’s invitation.”
The experience narrated by Dvorkin, who is now ONO’s president, is an important one. Putting aside the political-military aspect of the issue, there are dozens of particular, subjective, local aspects of how journalism is practiced in a certain place and time. Hubert Beuve-Méry, the founder of the French daily, Le Monde, said “Each country produces the press it deserves,” words well-remembered when it comes to deciding on who will train whom.
Perhaps the most obvious problem is language. Even if the trainees might speak and understand English, they need to think in the language they publish and broadcast in, and not in English. Language is not just a neutral and innocent means of communication; it contains within it the dimension of thought with its ideological content. Add to this the fact trainers do not usually come from the same cultural and educational background as the foreign students they are lecturing, and the chances improve that the lecture will be a solid one but hollow in content to its audience. It will be interesting but not terribly applicable or of any practical long-term use.
In training journalists, it must be taken into account that the reader is perhaps just as important as the journalist. Therefore, even if trainers communicate with those who are being trained by relying on English as a medium, without a good grasp of the target audience—the psychological mindscape of the readers and their cultural and media literacy level—the trainers run a pretty high risk of being regarded as a sort of extraterrestrial as they deliver their advice and lessons. Local traditions, customs, habits and, in particular, the extent and quality of citizens’ relationship with the media of their country (it could be love-hate or love and hate) are all factors a trainer must factor into any training.
When Training Works
Journalistic training abroad is not impossible, nor is it completely useless. Based on my experience with training seminars involving multinational groups of journalists, students and trainees, there were plenty of opportunities to learn from each other about the press and journalism practices of neighboring countries. And when related foreign experience is perceived and implemented in a deeper and creative manner by the trainees, it can be transformed into a local experience. In areas such as Cyprus or Greece, mixed participant training seminars with journalists from a variety of countries can lead to a camaraderie and solidarity. Being able to get to know the “other” face-to-face is a huge achievement in itself.
Finally, at this time of global media and mixed media, in which the news media, in general, are experiencing a crisis of confidence and reliability, such training seminars held abroad are useful as a reminder of the universally shared principles and rules of traditional journalism. Through them, journalists can present alternatives to the negative trends in our craft that are observed on a global level. What is a more futile exercise is to expect that one can impose a certain style of journalism on those who work in a country where the techniques and skills cannot be implemented. I was extremely lucky to have experienced the positive side of this training as a Nieman Fellow. It is an opportunity that I wish every colleague could have.
Ragip Duran, a 2000 Nieman Fellow, is the Turkey correspondent with the French daily Libération, a lecturer at Galatasaray University, and works with BIA (Independent Communication Network, www.bianet.org), a training program located in Turkey.