‘The quality of a training course’
It would of course show great arrogance to explain you (this group of well-experienced, skeptical and cynical journalists) to explain you the secret of the quality of a training course in journalism. I am not going to do that. I will tell you some of my experiences. And by the way, as I speak in plural about we, I was accompanied by my colleague Kees Schaepman – a reporter like me and member of the board of PN – with who I run a great number of trainings.
Ten years ago we went out for our first international mission. We had some experience as lecturers at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam – that’s why they call us outside Holland sometimes even professors. We are so honoured.
So we walked through half a meter of snow in the streets of Almaty, Kazachstan. It was minus 25 degrees Celsius and sometimes we had to touch our nose to avoid that he was freezing. It was short after communisme collapsed and Kazachstan was entering a new history.
In our bag we had a thoroughly prepared programme. What is news. How to select news. How to write a lead, three or four lines that briefly summarise the news, excitingly and invitingly written so as to lure the reader into further. And we had the intention to teach our students about the newsstory and the 5 W’s they had to answer.
After a fortyfive minutes walk we reached the outskirts of town and saw a kind of basement in an abandoned building. We had a bit trouble in entering the basement and when we succeeded to open the door, we could not close it because the ground was frostbound. So the rest of the week the wind blew cold and sometimes snow inside. But really we liked it because we like adventures.
Inside the building there were some tables, chairs, paper, pencils, six not-working computers and Russian Nescafe. If you don’t like Nescafe, than Russian Nescafe is horrifying.
We consulted our programm and decided to start first telling about the journalistic principles: Accuracy, integrity and fairness. And later on we would tell the students about the history and organization of the western press. I added that we had to be modest. I entered journalisme in 1960, worked with daily’s, weekly’s, radio and television and after all very few illusions are left about the credibility of the western press. So we agreed how to start. But unfortunately, there were no students.
After three quarters of an hour the participants from Oezbekistan and Turkmenistan arrived. After an hour, more students from Kazachstan and Kirgistan trickled in and indeed after one hour and a half the company of twenty students was complete. To tell you the truth, we were not amused. We asked them about the reasons. They blamed the snow, public transport and the basement they could not find. We asked them about their expectations. Some of them were under the impression that we were business-man, dealing in newspapers. At that time the word journalist or reporter was hardly known in Kazachstan. In general people working for the media were called ‘rapporteurs’: writing down the news, party-bureaucrats dictated.
So we changed the whole programme. We started to talk about journalisme as a deadline-business. Journalisme is not a science, it is a craft. We can teach you how to handle with news, how to select facts and even how to write. But without discipline, we told them, a newspaper cannot be published and a programme for radio and television cannot be broadcasted. Journalists very much work in hierarchy, depend on each other and work most of the time in teams. And we discussed the organisation of a newspaper and radio-station, the role of the editorial meetings, the differences between a reporter, a desk- editor and a beat reporter. At the end of the day we split the company in four different groups, ordered them to elect an editor in chief and told the editor in chief that he/she was for now on responsible for the two coming weeks. We told them that we would act very strict and hard and would not tolerate coming too late or neglectful behavior. It worked. We succeeded in simulating a newspaper, making articles and the fifteen days we spent together were successful.
What I want to say is that training in journalisme is every time very much different. Every journalist has his or her own cultural background. A blueprint how to handle does not exist.
We have been in a number of cities all over the Russian federation. Russian journalists have very much the idea that they at least have to try to write like Pusjkin did. They are used to ask very long questions during press-conferences and interviews. How can you make them clear, without being impolite, that they have to be succint. That no one is interested in the opinion of the journalist. That the art of interviewing is to have the right and revealing answers. Sometimes you have to teach them days and days to act in a professional way.
We have been in Almaty several times. The training courses grew better and better and a new generation of journalists was born. Once, a young woman, was beaten up because she wrote a very critical article about the corruption on the vegetable market. We felt guilty because we inspired her. The training was influenced dramatically – everybody came up with stories about fraud and corruption. What I learned is that is there is not such a thing as Kazack journalism, Dutch journalism, British journalism, Russian journalism or western and eastern journalism. There is only good and bad journalism.
To a useful training of course belongs teaching the technical process, how to collect and select facts, how to make a reportage, a feature, an interview, a documentary for radio, a short item for television. But I think the best parts of every training course are the discussions about ethics, about the Code of Bordeaux, about journalistic principles of honesty, hear and hear again. And how journalists have to behave their selves.
In some Russian cities, journalists have first find a sponsor and than they can be on the air with information.
I trained journalists from Libanon. They are used to receive presents and money after writing a positive article about a business man or an organization.
I visited the north of Mitrovicca in Kosovo where as you know Serbs are living. I accompanied ten Albanian journalists. We were making interviews in the hospital and suddenly some young journalists were starting to shout because they hate the serbs.
In Albania, I experienced and Fatos Lubonja wrote an article about it, that hate speech is linked with the struggle for political power. Some journalists spread rumors and lies.
And they are even surprised that circulation of newspapers is going down.
You can’t simply say you are wrong. Training in journalism means discuss and discuss again. Make students aware of their responsibility. That they have to change their attitude either leave journalism. Serious journalism means absolute honest journalism.
And as a trainer from the western world, be modest. Don’t be too arrogant to express some self-knowledge and self-criticism. I know that in general it is forbidden for a journalist to admire someone. But I admire the late Izzy F. Stone, I even once met him in Amsterdam. Stone said: ‘Every government is headed by liars. Nothing what they tell has to be believed.’
So once I told my students in Zagreb that their government was headed by the liar Tuzjman. But I told them also that the war in Vietnam once started by a lie of the US-president Lyndon Johnson. He told the world that communist gunboats had attacked US-warships in the Gulf of Tonkin – he knew it was a lie, there was no attack. Even journalists knew they were misleaded but they published the news. It meant the beginning of the Vietnam war.
Nixon lied about Watergate. The Bush-administration lied about the Gulf-war. And the Dutch government lied about the role of the Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica.
And I always remember in trainings about a story that The British journalist John Pilger wrote about the writer Simon Louvish. Once Louvish accompanied a group of Russians touring the United States. It was before glasnost and perestroijka. The Russians were astonished to find, after reading the newspapers and watching television, that all the opinions on vital issues were the same. ‘In our country, they said, to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what is you secret – how do you do it.
Coming back to the bad and the good journalists: good journalist have one thing in common, I tell in trainings:
Good journalists fight lies;
They scrutinise governments, public services and companies;
The discover and publish information in stead of rumor and speculation, spread by politicians and decision-makers;
They inform their readers and promote free exchange of ideas so that justice can be done.
My experience is that in every course, you will find at least two or three students who have all the qualities to become excellent journalists. I mean in the way that journalism is not only skills but a state of mind. It is impossible to develop a system to select these kind of students in advance, that’s why you need courses to select. The secret is to keep in touch with these promising students. My idea always has been to establish in the different countries small gangs of you, dedicated and aggressive journalists by setting up master classes. To go with them inside the country and to report about the problems and needs of society. To built a network of engaged journalists. To set up a gang of roving reporters. Teach them in practical trainings and they will be the prospective backbone of the nations But unfortunately, there are so many NGO’s, there is so much competition between and so few willingness to cooperate that until so far attempts failed. There is a lot of money waste now because of the fact that every country in the west and every NGO want to plant their own flag. Sometimes there are similar courses in the same town and in the same moment. I wait for the moment that ngo’s will work together.
After all, we all know that the world needs; young, angry, rebellious, anti-authorial journalists to fight corruption and to write the truth
(International seminar, organized by Press Now, September 21th 2000, Amsterdam)