Opinion – By John Wallace
In many parts of the world the options for professional journalism study are really quite limited, with many young people finding their way into journalism without preparation, and with opportunities for in-house training also limited.
This is one of the things the Asia-Pacific Journalism Centre tries to do something about – by providing professional development programmes for working journalists in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in those countries closest to Australia, such as East Timor, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and other southwest Pacific countries.
We’ve run programmes on reporting elections, reporting government, investigative reporting and many others.
Right now, we have 10 journalists from the region doing a five-week programme on reporting trade and economic affairs. Now they’re in Sydney attending briefings at the Reserve Bank and the Sydney office of the World Bank.
The funding for these programmes comes mainly from government aid budgets, with Australia’s AusAID a major supporter, but we also get financial support from private foundations and from other countries, even as far away as Denmark.
The general goal is to help news media report the decision-making by government and other powerful groups in their communities more effectively – to improve good governance, to reduce corruption, and to promote development.
Last year we ran a rather different programme for editors in East Timor, to explore how news media there could play a role in improving security in Timor. This was in the wake of riots by gangs of unemployed youths that forced 10 percent of the population out of their homes and into displaced persons camps.
Programmes to help
Opponents of the government had tapped into the dissatisfaction of young people and had used them to destabilise the whole country. AusAID identified this as a crisis and invited suggestions for programmes to help.
We felt that one way news media could help was to give more coverage to youth and community affairs, which we found was almost totally absent in their news media.
The idea was to teach them how to cover local sports, local music and generally celebrate local culture. The goal: to make people, and youth in particular, feel they are included in society and to give them some hope of being able to develop their lives.
The idea of reporting the lives of ordinary people – their triumphs, their losses – is new to East Timor journalism, which tends to be elitist in what it covers, so we don’t expect our training to bring about change overnight.
But already some news organisations that took part are allocating reporters to cover community and youth rounds. One of these is the national broadcaster, which reaches even the remotest communities in East Timor.
Since then, it has been suggested that we do a similar programme for journalists in Nepal, where 5 million Dalit people – the “untouchables” under the old Hindu-based caste system – are still excluded from jobs in the media, and from coverage in the media. We would like to run a programme for them next year.
There is also the possibility that we will run a programme for journalists in the western, poorer regions of China – the parts of China that are desperate to develop and achieve a reasonable standard of living, with or without carbon emissions.
So, one way or another, we are stretching our wings and becoming more international.
One question that we think about as we work with journalists from different countries is the challenge for journalism posed by globalisation.
Journalism, to be successful, needs to take account of the needs and interests of readers, listeners and viewers in the communities it serves.
This push for local relevance can be seen as a natural phenomenon; it makes sense that we are interested most in the things closest to us. However, the danger is that the local perspective will drown out important news from the outside world.
This was the concern raised 10 years ago by a group of senior American journalists who made an inquiry into “The State of the American Newspaper” and found that the space devoted to international news in newspapers in America had declined over the years. A similar, less extreme, trend was observed here in Australia.
Since then, the trend seems to be continuing. The big “high drama” global news stories are covered – September 11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global financial crisis, tsunamis and climate change – but, overall, foreign news coverage is being squeezed as news organisations fight to contain costs as they deal with competition from new media platforms.
One creative response to this concern has been the development of courses for journalists promoting the idea of “building up the connection between the local and the global”. The Poynter Institute in Florida is one organisation that runs such programmes.
Part of the idea is to recognise that many international stories have a local angle, and so can be made into local stories. For example, if there’s a story about poisonous toys being manufactured overseas, a reporter can see if they are being sold here; if a new version of flu breaks out overseas, a reporter can investigate what precautions are being taken here to reduce the threat.
This kind of reporting initiative is to be commended, but it can’t pretend to be a substitute for comprehensive international news coverage, as not all significant international stories will have a local connection.
As I see it, one of the biggest challenges ahead for journalism – whatever media platform it operates on – will be to work out ways to build up informed coverage of international news and current affairs.
The need for this has become more urgent as people throughout the world need better information on international matters to enable them to cope with living in an increasingly global society.
It’s partly a matter of citizens needing to know what is reasonable internationally in terms of advancing their national interests. And it’s also about being better able to carry out our increasing global responsibilities, such as playing our part in responding to the challenge of climate change.
To report this more global world, journalists of the future will, I am quite sure, be required to develop a more global perspective, while not forgetting, of course, the need to understand the interests of local communities.
At the APJC, we play a small role here by providing opportunities for Australian journalists to learn about countries in Australia’s immediate region – through our annual Understanding Near Neighbors programme, which involves a study tour of Indonesia and one other country, such as East Timor or Malaysia.
The funding comes from the Myer Foundation and one of the main goals is to give Australian journalists the chance to learn firsthand about the role Islamic institutions play in Indonesian society: running kindergartens, baby health centres, hospitals and doing other good works.
For the journalists selected for this programme, it is a great eye-opener on a world so close but so far – and a great opportunity to advance their careers. Gavin Fang is now Jakarta correspondent for Australia Network, Anne Barker is the ABC’s Middle-East correspondent, Marcus Cheek joined Al Jazeera in Kuala Lumpur as programme editor.
Next year, we plan to start another programme involving dialogue and a study tour for journalists across the Asia Pacific region.
The expectation with all these programmes is that the journalists who take part in them will be better able to report to their audiences news about other countries and other cultures, including the different cultures that make up our own society.
Young journalism graduates need to reach out for opportunities like these to share insights and experience with professionals from other countries and build networks for professional information exchange.
In doing so, they will be better placed to use journalism to make the world a better place.
Dr John Wallace is director of the Asia-Pacific Journalism Centre, Melbourne. This is an edited version of his graduation speech at the Brisbane J-School, headed by Professor John Henningham, on October 23. He was awarded an honorary doctorate at the graduation in recognition of his work in helping journalists from developing countries across the region.