INTO THE FIELD: Newsroom veterans using experience to teach journalists abroad
Sunday, May 1, 2016
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
By Autumn Phillips
Are you looking for your next career challenge? This might be it. Journalists with decades of experience are using their knowledge to help teach the next generation of reporters and editors in countries most in need of a thriving, trained and independent press.
The International Center for Journalists connects working and freelance journalists with volunteer opportunities that can be short-term, a couple weeks, or long-term, living in a country for a year at a time.
Over the years, ICFJ has sent hundreds of journalists into the field and the classroom in Africa, Asia, Central and South America and the Middle East.
Most of the time, ICFJ seeks out the journalists they want to work with – veterans with solid journalism and media management skills.
“Maybe they’ve spent some time abroad. Maybe they speak another language or have an understanding of the part of the world where we need someone,” said Patrick Butler, vice president of programs for ICFJ. “It’s equally important that they have some training experience. You can be an outstanding journalist, a Pulitzer winner, and be a flop as a teacher.”
ICFJ’s flagship program is the Knight International Journalism Fellowships. The fellowships are awarded to journalists willing to give at least a year. Training is a week long, formal and intensive, including teaching skills and a briefing on the situation in the country where the fellow will work.
For journalists unable to dedicate that much time to a project, ICFJ also facilitates an exchange program where journalists travel – expenses paid – and later host a foreign reporter or editor in a US newsroom.
ICFJ has several projects in Africa, Asia and South America, but there are countries the organization isn’t allowed.
“It’s too dangerous to do what we do in a country like Iran,” Butler said. “We have a website in Persian and we’ve done some distance learning in Farsi, but it’s too dangerous to send someone in person.”
ICFJ also doesn’t send teaching journalists into war zones.
“Syria, Yemen, we have worked there in the past,” Butler said. “The environment in those countries is not conducive to learning.”
There are other organizations, like the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) that works in countries in “conflict, crisis and transition.”
As for ICFJ, Butler said they monitor risk in host countries. “We’ve cancelled things, postponed things.”
ICFJ no longer operates in countries like Egypt that are not friendly to foreign journalists. In Egypt, there was a crackdown on NGOs in 2011. Butler was among 43 people charged for operating illegally in Egypt and supporting anti-government protests.
In countries like China, where censorship of journalism is a norm, ICFJ has focused its efforts on a global business master’s program in partnership with the prestigious Tsinghua University of Beijing — sometimes called the MIT of China.
“Our local partners are savvy,” Butler said. “They would not let us get in trouble. The Americans we send over there, we are careful to educate them on what they can or shouldn’t do.”
Willing to Go
Karen Bordeleau, who recently retired as executive editor of the Providence Journal, went on ICFJ exchange trips in Kenya, Russia and Pakistan while still working full time and taught Iranian journalists who traveled to the United States. Immediately after retiring this past fall, she took another trip to Pakistan to teach journalists there.
Bordeleau said she always arrives with three different curriculum ideas that she adjusts as she learns her students’ capabilities, and as she learns how the press operates within a country.
“You have to gauge how you can help them do it a little better,” she said. “The U.S. way isn’t always the best way. They have challenges we can’t really comprehend here.
“It’s very dangerous to be a reporter in a place like Pakistan. Terrorists have figured out how to not only kill civilians, but how second bomb blasts will kill first responders and the press.”
In the U.S., the goal is to get to the scene and get there fast, but in a place like Pakistan, journalists must hold back. Bordeleau teaches them what they can get on the phone instead.
Publishing in a place like Pakistan can also be complicated.
“One of the things I see if self-censorship,” she said. “Media laws are very restrictive in these countries. There’s a law on the books – I believe it’s in Kenya – where if someone believes they’ve been wronged or the media has been irresponsible, they can sue. Of course you’ll second guess yourself all the time with a law like that.”
Bordeleau said seeing the legal challenges reporters face in other countries is a steady reminder of how hard journalists must fight in the United States to challenge any move by government to close meetings or weaken open records laws.
Despite the challenges, Bordeleau said things are improving for journalists in many countries, particularly in Pakistan, where she taught advanced reporting in November. The class focused how to use data to build the skeleton of a story.
“One reporter was comparing crime, one year to another, and we learned that the crime rate in Pakistan has nosedived. Society is moving in the right direction there.
“But it’s not going to happen unless it has a robust press, which is the reason we need working journalists in this country going there to teach them to do what we do in the confines of how they can operate.”
The ICFJ exchanges are fully funded, with all expenses paid.
“Two weeks to a month is ideal,” Butler said. “We want them to spend some real time in the newsroom. We take care of everything – assign someone to be their mentor, make sure they are having a good experience, develop a schedule for the person.”
Editors, reporters, photographers and opinion writers travel abroad to teach and visit newsrooms, and newsrooms host journalists from abroad.
“It’s a critical way to understand what goes on in the world,” Bordeleau said. “American journalists have obstacles to overcome. There’s no question about that. We’re fighting to keep things open, but mostly we’re safe. It’s really important for American journalists to understand that in other country, it’s very different. There are days when you could lose your life doing your job.”
Autumn Phillips is executive editor of the Quad City Times of Davenport, Iowa, and an APME board member.