02/17/2008 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ole to Media Cultural Diversity!

Are media parochial? Does their coverage take cultural context into account? Do languages, dialects and nuances matter?

Yes and no, depending on the country, market and circumstance.

But perhaps it's more a case of no, given time constraints, budgets, priorities, cultural biases, massive ignorance and ill intent -- not necessarily in that order, or all combined.

To shed light on what problems exist and how one may attempt to overcome them, I addressed a UNESCO experts meeting on "Cultural Diversity in Education" in Barcelona, Spain, in a bid to foster critical capacities and counter unilateral viewpoints by focusing on the journalism education and training dimension.

The event grouped Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, former Icelandic president Vigdis Finnbogadottir, herself a UNESCO goodwill ambassador, and Akira Arimoto of Japan's Hijiyama University, to name a few.

The meeting aimed at raising awareness of cultural diversity's benefits in education, translating it into action, looking into multilingual educational systems and developing intercultural skills for teachers.

Our gathering almost paralleled "The First Annual UN Alliance of Civilizations Conference" in Madrid and was organized by UNESCO's voice in Catalonia, UNESCOCAT, itself a mover and shaker on cultural diversity, given the region's attachment to its language and heritage -- Catalan -- and its people's reference to Catalonia as a country, albeit within the geographic boundaries of Spain.

That was quite an education. So was learning about how indigenous populations' languages were being marginalized by technology, how information and knowledge saturation were crushing longstanding traditions, and how educational environments and discriminatory content in curricula were possibly responsible for cross-cultural conflicts.

So I tried to focus on the issues from a media perspective and proposed some solutions by underlining the need for critical thinking and promoting openness to cultural diversity. The ideas were summarized below. The event's proceedings are to be included in UNESCO's World Report on Cultural Diversity.

A book entitled Fighting Words, by Lisa Schnellinger and Mohannad Khatib and published by the Washington-based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), aimed to do just that. It was the outcome of a conference called "Bridging the Gap: Misunderstandings and Misinformation in the Arab and U.S. Media."

Alan Elsner, national U.S. correspondent for Reuters and a participant at the ICFJ conference contributed the following comment: "I think the most useful thing I can do is be honest about my own biases...If I could confront them -- actually if we all could confront our biases -- maybe we can use that as a starting point for a dialogue."

So what constitutes good journalism and how do we go about preparing young people for this most honorable and misunderstood of professions?

I use the term "profession." While there are a number of skills one acquires to practice it -- and any self-respecting journalist will not stop with just a university degree but continue learning throughout his/her life -- I like to equate journalists with emergency room doctors in hospitals. They are needed to treat and save patients, they work on tight deadlines, they can't afford to make mistakes, and if they do, the results could be catastrophic.

It's imperative that we bridge the gaps and take it upon ourselves to lower the volume of shrill discourse that has taken over the debate, and to learn to discuss our differences in a rational way as we move ahead in this very globalized and confusing 21st century.

Academic Requirements -- There have been endless discussions on what academic programs are needed to shape journalists. There are no easy, definitive answers. As a veteran foreign correspondent and editor, I have ideas about what kind of journalists are needed in today's world.

As an academic and trainer of journalists, I see where knowledge gaps exist and try to fill them through curricula, programs, courses and workshops suited to these needs.

There is often a "disconnect" between what is taught and what the market needs. The requisite skills to function in a fast-paced, technologically transformed world amid a cacophony of languages and cultures are frequently sorely lacking.

I served on a committee of international experts advising UNESCO on journalism education. UNESCO is the lead UN agency committed to the promotion of the free flow of information, ideas and media development, so it was only fitting that it was at the forefront of such an undertaking.

Our efforts culminating in a book called "Model Curricula for Journalism Education for Developing Countries and Emerging Democracies" was presented at the first World Journalism Education Conference in June 2007 in Singapore. (PDF download available here)

At an initial meeting of the committee, the editor-in-chief of The Hindu newspaper said the functions and methods of journalism needed fresh and critical study given the media's declining public credibility, the rise of new technology, market pressures and rapid socio-political changes.

We should keep in mind that a well-rounded education requires a combination of liberal arts courses, some natural sciences and social sciences, college level mathematics, languages and a mix of electives.

One of the areas not given adequate attention is the learning of languages. Journalists must have the ability to ask questions and understand answers in at least a second language. Tragically, many journalists operate as if they know it all and through their ignorance misinterpret and miscommunicate information.

I see this in students, in reporters and in editors. I've also seen it in correspondents parachuted into countries to cover stories and who don't have enough background information about the place or who have to rely on interpreters with an agenda.

Training Requirements -- The Journalism Training Program (JTP), established in 2007 at the American University of Beirut, aims at helping reporters, editors and managers in the various print, broadcast and online media improve their operational skills in Arabic, English and French.

Although the JTP seeks to help Arab journalists, the cross-cultural nature of the program has brought these reporters, editors and media managers in contact with experts and counterparts from various countries around the world to form a learning community in the interest of growing tolerance and respect between Arab and Western societies and cultures at this critical juncture.

The workshops I've conducted in Lebanon and across the Arab World (from the Arabian Gulf to North Africa) in Arabic, French and English have aimed at upgrading and updating journalists' skills in such areas as news reporting and writing, editing, media ethics, elections coverage, war coverage/safety for journalists, investigative journalism, environment coverage, newsroom management, public health and more.

There is heavy emphasis on editing exercises that don't take anything for granted. For example, we go back to the basics of grammar, spelling and easily confused words -- issues that could cause cultural misunderstandings.

Countries, as we all know, change shapes, names and leaders. It's part of the dynamic process of evolution, or devolution. That's where general knowledge, the study of history, geography and cultural studies are very important in the formation of reporters, editors and foreign correspondents.

Other areas we work on are media laws and ethics and the need for higher professional standards. Journalism often translates into plagiarism, inaccuracy, imbalance, unfairness, conflict of interest, invasion of people's privacy, mishandling of news concerning minors, stereotyping, and a host of other issues.

Being aware of cultural nuances can go a long away towards minimizing conflict and friction.

Training is an essential part of a journalist's growth and development. Too often news organizations don't offer such possibilities to their staffs due to lack of funds or because there's never enough time. It's a big mistake.

On both sides of the cultural divide and beyond we find that media are influential in shaping socio-economic developments.


Journalists are bound by closer geographic proximity thanks to globalization, and cultures have been intertwined for centuries, so they are duty-bound to forge ties of friendship, trade and cross-cultural harmony.

To attain such harmony, I recommend the following steps:

1. Create media literacy programs for journalists on both sides of the proverbial "cultural divide" so that they learn the languages, cultural backgrounds, history, politics and traditions of each other in a sustained and comprehensive fashion. Tragically, what we have today is very superficial and rather distorted. Parachute journalism and the use of translators can be more harmful than informative.

2. Institute solid journalism programs at universities that provide rich curricula that not only teach reporting, editing, photography and blogging, but that also emphasize media ethics, sensitivity training and that require comprehensive language skills.

3. Encourage exchange programs between journalists so that they can appreciate the hardships faced by their colleagues in their respective countries.

4. Encourage journalists to contribute to each other's media, when and where possible, to provide cross-pollination of ideas. An article, a feature, an audio report, an Internet posting, a TV segment may help alleviate the tension.

5. Create networks that provide support and solidarity in times of crisis. Sometimes it's not what you know, but who you know, that gets you out of trouble.

6. Create an unofficial watchdog mechanism to monitor offensive media reporting and work to defuse tensions as soon as they emerge and before things get out of hand. Work cooperatively to promote genuine good relations.

7. Very importantly, give more of a voice to women and youth to contribute to the media dialogue and ensure that they are fully empowered, not marginalized or discredited.