Training needs of the media in the new democracies by Owais Aslam Ali -
Pakistan Press Foundation

Training needs of the media in the new democracies by Owais Aslam Ali

The training needs of the media have increased greatly in most developing countries as a result of the immense changes sweeping the globe. These include the first steps towards democracy, deregulation of economies and privatisation of government-owned enterprises, and a heightened concern for social, environmental and development issues. Running parallel with all these are rapid advances in information technology.

Previously, in the authoritarian eras, when only the government’s side of the story could be reported, the skills expected from journalists were relatively simple. In many instances, newspapers filled most of their pages by publishing press releases issued by government departments. In contrast, journalists in the emerging democracies now have to report and analyse conflicting viewpoints of government and opposition and of public-interest groups. This change requires a much higher level of skills and awareness, which can only be reached with training and retraining of journalists at all levels.

Advancement of democracy calls for increased training needs
The move towards democracy in developing countries are leading to a loosening of controls over the media, especially the press. Laws relating to licensing of publications have been relaxed and procedures for starting new publications have been simplified. The result has been an explosive growth in the number of newspapers and magazines. In Pakistan, for example, scores of new publications have been launched since the repeal of the draconian Press and Publication Ordinance in 1988.

The increase in the number of publications has been so dramatic that trained personnel have become sorely inadequate. The need for journalists had never been greater, and novices have been inducted to meet the demand. The demand for journalists has also risen as increased competition has compelled publications to improve the quality of news coverage, add magazine sections and other new features, and improve layout and design.

Established publications have met their growing need for staff by drawing from smaller newspapers and magazines. Not surprisingly, the ratio of experienced journalists to newcomers has been badly disrupted in the latter. Experienced journalists now find themselves with the responsibility of training new entrants in increasing numbers.

The first step towards the easing the crisis should be to develop the training skills of working journalists themselves. Programmes for training senior journalists as trainers can be started relatively quickly. In the longer term, publications should be encouraged to start in-house training programmes. In many countries, some newspapers and news agencies have traditionally acted as informal training centres for journalists. These organisations need to be strengthened so they can expand and formalise their training activities.

Many universities in developing countries have departments of journalism and mass communication, but these are constrained by a lack of resources and poor coordination with the media. The result is that they have concentrated more on the theoretical aspects of issues related to the media rather than on producing working journalists for the media. Although academic institutions have to balance the long-term needs of society with the industry’s immediate requirement for work force, the current shortage of journalists calls for an emphasis on the teaching of practical skills.

Press foundations and institutes have played an important role by organising workshops and seminars on skills-development and on raising their awareness of current issues. In view of the increase in the training needs, these organisations could start on-going training programmes for beginners as well as specialised courses for experienced journalists.

Short-duration training workshops on specific skills, such as subbing, interviewing, news-writing and reporting, and seminars on different aspects of the profession can supplement on-the-job training for beginners. Experienced journalists could benefit from advanced training in specialised fields such as parliamentary reporting and coverage of elections. Improvement in the standards of political reporting is essential — with the investigative aspect uppermost — if the media are to play an effective role as watchdogs in new democracies. The scope of economic and financial reporting has also increased tremendously, as more and more developing countries race to open up their economies. Hence, the growing need for training in economic and financial reporting.

Training for journalists in rural areas
Democratisation in developing countries has increased the importance of rural centres since most of the people in developing countries live in rural areas. Political, social and economic activities that were once confined to major cities are now slowly reaching smaller towns and villages.

Although many publications have increased the space devoted to rural affairs, news coverage from the hinterlands remains haphazard, sketchy and negative. The reason is that most rural journalists do not have the necessary skills to cover the diverse range of complex issues affecting their communities.

The growth in the number of publications has led to a parallel rise in the number of rural correspondents — most of whom have had no experience of news organisation. In the cities, newcomers can learn from senior colleagues, but in rural areas, correspondents work independently.

There is a great need to train rural journalists in the basic skills of news-gathering and news-writing. These journalists must also be introduced to important social and development issues, and to problems of journalistic ethics. Basic training should, whenever possible, be given in small towns and rural centres. Training programmes that go to the doorstep of rural journalists stand a better chance of being relevant to the needs of local communities.

Most developing countries are agriculture-based and the rural areas are massive. Regular training programmes covering an entire country will not be feasible for a long time. Training workshops held once or twice a year are not enough to develop skills, inculcate values of journalistic ethics and raise awareness of complex issues. These should, therefore, be supplemented by distance-education programmes tailored to the needs of rural journalists. Such programmes are available in some countries and can be adapted to the needs of individual societies.

In Pakistan, a programme of training rural journalists launched this year has made a good beginning. A number of two- and three-day training workshops have been held in the country’s rural areas and the response of journalists has been very positive. Besides imparting basic skills to rural journalists, these workshops have also provided a forum for participants to discuss professional problems and possible solutions. Participants of these workshops have also started receiving, in Urdu language, training material, editorial tips and information of social, environmental and development issues.

Training in management and marketing
Competition among newspapers in formerly authoritarian countries had been limited because of government’s licensing regulations that restricted the number of newspapers and magazines. Government advertising also provided the bulk of the revenue for most publications. Limited competition and almost-guaranteed government advertising made newspapers complacent in matters of administration, management and marketing.

Newspapers in emerging democracies now find themselves in an extremely competitive environment, in which survival will not only require improved journalistic skills but also better managerial and marketing capabilities. Training to develop the skills of management and marketing personnel in news organisations is as important as the training of journalists.

The impact of increased competition has been further enhanced by the trend towards privatisation, which will lead to a reduction in the share of government advertising. Although governments still control a large percentage of advertising, this is slowly declining. Reduced government advertising will lead to greater editorial freedom since many governments have used advertising as a weapon against independent publications.

However, unless the media develop their marketing and managerial capabilities, the situation can lead to a difficult financial situation. Worst-affected will be smaller publications, especially those in regional centres, which depend almost entirely on government advertising support. Since reduction in government advertising is a gradual process, publications have the time to hone their marketing skills and to develop market niches to attract private-sector advertisers.

Unless newspapers reduce their dependence on governments, there will always be the danger of authoritarian forces using it to stifle editorial independence. Training in management and marketing, especially for smaller publications and those from smaller towns, are essential for the development of an independent press. Publications in smaller towns need ideas, guidance and training on making their publications relevant to their communities. Only then will they be able to create a sustainable base of readership and advertising support.

Training in information technology
Advances in information technology have had a revolutionary impact on the press all over the world. Rapid technological progress — especially the dramatic decline in the prices of computer equipment — has greatly improved the viability of small and medium-sized newspapers. The development of computer programmes for non-Latin scripts has, in many Asian countries, led to large savings as a few operators can now do the job that once required an array of calligraphers. In Pakistan, smaller newspapers have started offering composing services on commercial basis which has improved their financial viability.

We are also witnessing dizzying changes in the field of data communications. A few major newspapers in developing countries have entered the era of electronic publishing and news dissemination through Internet. This number is expected to see rapid growth.

Despite benefits, the use of computers in newspapers is in its early stages in most developing countries. Most publications use computers largely for composing or page-making and only a few large publications have become fully computerised. As a result, there is a dearth of computerisation expertise in the field of journalism. The lack of know-how in the designing and running of computer systems is a major impediment in the automation of the media in the developing world. There is also a sub-optimal use of computers as proper training is not available and the staff is expected to learn on-the-job after a superficial demonstration of equipment and software.

There is a growing urgency for training in the use of available hardware and software, specialised courses in the design of computerised systems for newspapers, and seminars on advancement in the field of information-technology.

The need for consensus on press freedom and ethics

In the past, when limits were imposed by the authorities, journalists could work within well-defined frameworks. Now that these restrictions have gone, journalists have to face numerous ethical dilemmas.Making ethical choices is especially difficult when there is no consensus on the rules. In many countries, experiments with democracy have resulted in a chaotic political climate. Democratic norms and traditions are much more difficult to establish than the mere holding of periodic elections. In some instances, elections have brought communal, ethnic and religious extremists to the forefront.

In such a charged political climate, newspaper pages are filled with accusations traded by rival political groups. This has led to charges that the press has not used its new-found freedom with responsibility, and that it has resorted to sensationalism, character-assassination and disinformation. These charges have given many governments the justification to push for legally binding codes of ethics for the press.

While no one will disagree that unethical practices must be discouraged, many journalists feel that such codes may have the same effect as the repressive laws they had struggled so hard to abolish. It is essential for national press organisations to devise self-regulating mechanisms to deter unethical practices.

More important than a code is the process of arriving at it. Rather than allowing codes of ethics to be imposed, there should be exhaustive discussions on the ethical dilemmas facing journalists. The demand for seminars and workshops on press freedom and media ethics is urgent and will remain so until our democratic systems become more stable.

Raising the awareness of vernacular journalists
Another important international trend is the increased emphasis on social and development issues, such as the environment, health and hygiene, human rights, equality of opportunities for women, population and rural development. The media in the developing countries have substantially increased coverage of these issues and have played a significant part in generating public interest in them and in pushing these problems higher on national agendas.

However, in countries such as Pakistan, the leading role in the projection of development issues has been played by the English-language media, while the vernacular press has, with notable exceptions, lagged behind. This restricts the effectiveness of the media since the vernacular press accounts for the bulk of newspaper circulation.

A major reason for the unsatisfactory coverage of development issues is that the vernacular press suffers from a lack of information resources. International NGOs and development agencies that work in international languages such as English, French and Spanish, have done little to reach the vernacular press. The result is that journalists working for vernacular publications do not have access to the wealth of information that is available in these languages.

Progress on many social issues — such as human rights, environment, health — will require active popular support. Since the vernacular media are the main source of information for an overwhelming majority of a country’s population, it is necessary that information on these issues be made available to local languages. There is a need for seminars and workshops for vernacular journalists to raise their awareness of issues of vital concern. Efforts should also be made to raise the awareness of journalists in rural area to enable them to provide the local perspective on issues of national and international concern.Working in collaboration with international institutions, a few organisations in developing countries have started co-syndicated feature services in local languages on social, economic, environmental and developmental issues. These organisations should be strengthened and their capabilities could be utilised for the production of training material.

These are exciting and challenging times for journalism in new democracies, with bright prospects for the growth of independent media. However, progress will require long-term national, regional and international cooperation in the field of training to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.