Is it appropriate for the U.S. Department of State to train journalists in foreign countries?
Absolutely. The U.S. State Department’s public diplomacy section is tasked with building capacity—which includes providing training for journalists—in every country where the U.S. has an embassy. I provide the material as I see fit with no interference from the U.S. government.
I trained publishers in Cameroon in 1994 and that was the case then, too.
What is your perception of Liberia's democracy?
Well, the phrase used around the international community is this: Liberia is stable but fragile. Warlords who carried on the long civil war, which was made into a documentary titled the Uncivil War, are running for election.
What are some issues of press freedom in Liberia? For example, is a consolidation of ownership causing wealthy parties to have a disproportionate influence? Is there any strong-arm political interference?
The top three issues I’ve observed: 1. Resisting the economic temptation of receiving help from politicians who would wish to influence the reporting in their direction; 2. Lack of economic resources to do their job—to get out to the rural areas and serve the goals of civic journalism; 3. Working together, rather than always in competition.
What did the journalists take away from your keynote speech at the PUL event?
I tried to emphasize the importance of balancing their freedom to report on the elections in 2011 and their responsibility to do a professional job. Establishing credibility in the face of overwhelming odds; their work is an uphill battle.
Political leaders and political candidates are reluctant to confide in reporters if they believe they're not prepared to report ethically and remain professional. Of course, this can also be an excuse for politicians not to be transparent.
How would you define credibility? What are some of those “overwhelming odds” that Liberian journalists face?
It means the same thing here as it means in the United States, reporting ethically and following professional standards that include rigorous fact-checking, proper identification of sources and correct attribution. One of the first object lessons was a photo of me, which appeared on the back page of one of the leading newspapers: the cutline identified me as the chairman of the National Elections Commission.
Overwhelming odds: These journalists work with limited resources, such as lack of funding to travel upcountry to cover stories; poor roads and lack of transport options, poorly equipped and dimly lit newsrooms, and the biggest drawback—paltry salaries.
This is due, in large part, to the struggling economy here as well as to the consequences of a bloody civil war. The electrical grid was severely damaged when the major energy station was sabotaged. The president of the country [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf] has made this one of her major priorities since being elected in 2005.
What is Liberia’s media scene like? What newspapers or other news outlets were represented at your workshop?
The number of media outlets changes all the time because independent newspapers are springing up in this open and free environment. I might add here that the Liberian legislature has just passed an open-records bill: FOIA. The president has promised to sign the bill.
Four to six daily newspapers seem to dominate, but an average print run for any one of these newspapers is only 5,000 copies: the Daily Observer, FrontPage, the National Chronicle, New Liberia, the News, the Inquirer, and New Vision. I would say the most innovative of all these is FrontPage, which started out as an online newspaper. The literacy rate here is very low.
Among the participants were about four community radio stations, which was very encouraging because this means that rural areas are getting news where so many people cannot read or write. Also two television stations were present. Of the 40 reporters, at least 8 were from community radio stations.
Do Liberian newspapers endorse election candidates, as American newspapers do?
It's likely that two or three newspapers tend to be partisan. This is a problem. We covered this issue pretty thoroughly. It's not always out in the open, but yes, it is my understanding that this took place during the last election.
The journalists [in my workshop] agreed that this isn't a good practice; it's only acceptable if the newspaper makes it very clear that this candidate is being endorsed, but the endorsement appears on the editorial page and must not influence the quality of the reporting.
As you know, Jay Rosen has published and written quite a bit on his own blog about the importance of reporters and editors creating a Citizens Agenda for covering elections. His ideas inspired my lecture on this point, as well as the assignments I gave both cohorts. The assignment was to give them a trial run at creating a Citizens Agenda.
They really got into this and seemed to become excited about the role journalists here can play in at least mitigating against the usual “horse-race” coverage we see so much, especially in the United States. Lewis T. Togba, a reporter for the Liberia Broadcasting System said, “Formulating the citizens agenda means a lot to me and was very new ground for me.” That sentiment was shared widely during the workshop. Chloe Roberts, a producer for The Star Newspaper, gave the three-day workshop a 100% on her evaluation form.
What is a “citizens agenda”? Did your workshop make a direct difference to any Liberian journalist?
I had the participants separate into groups of six persons each. Each group had to come up with what they thought are the most important issues Liberian citizens would tell them mattered in the upcoming election cycle.
Second, we talked about preparing to cover elections ahead of time. For example, covering speeches—what to look for, how to create a checklist so that before a speech is given, they have an idea of attendance; have their interviews set up ahead of time; the three-source rule of reporting a story, even speeches, etc. Third, anticipating problems that occur on election day: number of polling stations; adequate number of ballots; phone numbers of election supervisors. Fourth, best practices in journalism: my 25 tips for effective writing; reporting ideas from my colleagues at the Mayborn School: Kathie Hinnen, Tracy Everbach, George Getschow and yourself. Finally, I talked to them about the differences between traditional journalism and public/civic journalism.
Please travel safely back to Denton!
Thanks, Nikhil. As I de-briefed with Dehab Ghebreab, the American public affairs officer, I told her, “The older I get the more I realize how important it is to do things that matter the most in one’s career.” Working with journalists here matters a great deal to me: helping to build journalism capacity in a part of the world I have come to love.
Photo: Mitch Land (left) with Ernest Kiazolu, who is information assistant in the public diplomacy section of the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia and formerly a reporter and producer with Star Radio, Monrovia. (Picture by Peter Quaqua, president of the Press Union of Liberia)