In the journalistic niche shared by TOL and a few other outlets, the part we play in promoting “Western” values (or if you will, foisting alien belief systems) in what used to be called the Second World is a common topic of discussion. My colleague Michael J. Jordan goes into this in a letter to the editor of Nieman Reports, the magazine of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Jordan is commenting on an article by journalism professor James Miller in the current issue.
In his piece, titled “Questioning the Western Approach to Training,” 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.”
A “surprisingly idealized version of mainstream journalism has been actively promoted for decades,” Miller goes on. “The export of media in the American style was a hallmark of Cold War modernization theory. Then, as now, development experts sought to replicate the U.S. media system, claiming it to be a necessary means of democratization.”
Giving examples from his experience as a journalism trainer, Jordan (who has contributed to TOL and regularly teaches in our training courses) shows that grand ideas of democratization or development are not what working journalists think about when they try to explain their working methods to young people.
A lot of my working time goes to editing stories reported by journalists from the former USSR. Often, the process of editing their stories boils down to two things: getting them to “make it relevant”; and getting them to return to their early childhoods, continually asking “Why?” until you want to wring their little necks. Where a toddler might ask “Why is the sky blue?”, I find myself often prodding reporters to ask, “Why did the government say the sky is green?”; “Why did the opposition not point out that the sky is, in fact, blue?”; “Why did the government award the contract to paint the sky blue to a company owned by the finance minister’s wife’s second cousin?” Now, I understand that in some places journalist might actually get their necks wrung for asking too many obnoxious questions. Still, I think at its core “world journalism” is simply the willingness to be a gadfly – and not to bite until you have a hard base of facts to stand on.