By Nicole Bauke
“Maximize learning opportunities. Find interests, niche areas now, before entering the workforce. Journalism is a dynamic, changing environment and having a reservoir of knowledge broadens your opportunities.”
This is the advice Babar Taimoor, program director of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), wants to give aspiring journalists.
Taimoor oversees projects like the U.S.-Pakistan Professional Partnership in Journalism, which operates like a foreign exchange program building international, collaborative networks for U.S. and Pakistani journalists.
Once a journalist is in the workforce, Taimoor said the need to produce up-to-the-minute news easily gets in the way of building one’s education. To help provide as much opportunity for education as possible, Taimoor has led the way to ICFJ partnering with Medill to bring the Center for Excellence in Journalism to Pakistan. The center will offer workshops modeled after Medill classes to journalists of all ages and skill sets, and will be hosted by the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) in Karachi, the premier business school in Pakistan.
The first course was held from September 24 to October 3, and included 21 journalists from different Pakistani regions and news stations. According to Professor Craig Duff, who is organizing the Medill side of the operation, various Medill professors will initially teach the courses, but they are training native journalists to take over within the next three years in order “to build something self-sustaining, not just do a three year project,” Duff teaches graduate level video and multimedia journalism courses, and taught the first workshop in Pakistan.
Taimoor echoes the same ideals, and said he hopes to create “a hub, a space, where journalists all over Pakistan can come and improve their skill sets and talk with each other.” He added that he hopes the center will act as “a catalyst of change” in Pakistan.
Though safety for journalists in Pakistan has always been a concern, it has not impaired the growth of the center. Akber Ali, a journalist from Dawn News who participated in the first course, said he thinks the center will improve affairs for journalists.
“We learned how to shoot, edit and publish/upload an audiovisual story using a smartphone or an iPod Touch,” Ali said. “In Pakistan, journalists are too vulnerable. We have too much threats from different pressure groups. Using this new technique will help us to save our lives from the threats and shoot simply, with mobile smart phones, as ordinary citizens did at many public places.”
Duff also acknowledged the element of danger in reporting in Pakistan.
“It’s dangerous for a journalist who covers certain things or receives certain attention, in the same sense that some people say Chicago is dangerous,” Duff said. “Yes there are challenges, but there has been an extremely robust media sector in the last ten years. Lots and lots of people reporting and storytelling, without any real training.”
Ali hopes that as journalism becomes increasingly digital, media will become more mature in Pakistan, a country where many are illiterate and must rely on oral news.
“The goal is to impart specific skills which would have an immediate impact on the quality of journalism and news content in Pakistan,” Ali said.
ICFJ has worked in over 180 developing countries, and is currently active in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. They came to Pakistan seeing a great need in the growing journalism sector, and “looking for a U.S. partner,” says Duff.
“Medill is becoming a more global school, exploring a lot of different global initiatives,” Duff added.
“Pakistani media became liberalized maybe 12, 13 years ago when private media was allowed to set up,” Taimoor said. “Since then, there has been a tremendous growth in media, but there was no education in journalism in Pakistan.”
He said that ICFJ saw a space where it could do its work of creating programs in developing countries.
“There was a need there: a lot of journalism, no education,” Taimoor said.
Wasif Shakil, a senior content developer from Geo News focusing on social media, attended the first workshop back in September. He wishes the workshop could have been a full two weeks rather than 10 days.
“They keep coming from America with new things,” Shakil said. “The level of education was very good.”
Shakil said collaborating with US journalists was a positive experience, but he would also like to see more on-the-ground fieldwork.
“Media in Pakistan is about experience,” he said. “Everyone should be empowered to work for truth in the media.”
Taimoor and Duff agreed on the valuable educational opportunities that come from collaboration between U.S. and Pakistani journalists.
“Their perception of the U.S. is warped and skewed,” said Duff. “You have to sit down and meet people and put preconceived notions behind you and look with as fresh an eye as possible.”
In his estimation, this kind of cultural unfamiliarity cuts both ways.
“If all you ever hear about is things blowing up and getting flooded, then that’s all you know,” Duff said. “In the same sense, U.S. culture comes to them as Hollywood. You only know about what makes the news.”
But Duff cautioned against reading only the news that one wants to read.
“Media literacy is something that is rarely emphasized,” Duff said. “Helping people understand more about media is necessary, but not often stressed. So we don’t know as much about the world and how information is gathered and which news organizations to trust.”
Also taking into account how much media has changed, Duff sees a daunting challenge for the next generation of journalists.
“The country has become so polarized and fractured,” he said. “Extreme information can get around the world through Twitter and social media before the truth gets its pants on. And the truth has a hard time competing.”
But Duff, like Taimoor, has his own advice to share with young journalists: “Stay hungry and curious, because that is ultimately what’s going to help you, as long as you stay true to yourself and learn new things. Go for a story with gusto.”
Duff concedes that these are things that cannot be taught, but that doesn’t stop him from encouraging curiosity in young journalists.
“Never let those things lapse,” he said.