Educating journalists in Myanmar

Media educators are grappling with a number of dilemmas. Myanmar will face them too. This is the text of a talk on media education at the 2nd Conference on Media Development in Myanmar in Yangon, 21 May 2013.


As Myanmar transitions to a more open media system, the training of journalists has become a top priority. As a late developer, the country can follow in the footsteps of the many others that have had decades of experience in journalism education. However, this is harder than it sounds, because there is no single, obvious path to tread. There is currently a great deal of disagreement over how to produce good journalists. This lack of consensus is not necessarily a bad thing, because it forces us to ask fundamental questions about journalism and cautions us against simplistic prescriptions for  what needs to be done.

UNESCO’s Model Curricula for Journalism Education is worth highlighting as an extremely well-thought-out contribution to these debates. However, we need to bear in mind what the UNESCO document is, and also what it isn’t. It offers sound answers to the question of how to organise formal media education for future professional journalists within a college or university. But it doesn’t claim to address broader issues, like whether all journalists should have journalism qualifications; the role of institutions outside of the formal education sector; and what can be done to raise the standards of non-professional or “citizen” journalists.

“Asian” or universal journalism?

First, I would like to address a question raised by one of our participants yesterday – whether we should be teaching “Asian” or universal journalism. Although some government leaders, including in Singapore, have tried to promote the idea of an “Asian” journalism that is less adversarial and instead emphasizes values such as harmony and consensus, most Asian journalists I know are wisely quite skeptical of this idea. .

Despite working in very different systems and contexts, journalists across Asia share certain common aspirations with their peers in other parts of the world. They believe it is their job to provide information and commentary about current affairs in order to help the public participate in public life; and they think they can do this job best when they are allowed to be independent of the powerful institutions that they cover. These basic principles seem to be quite universal. I hope Myanmar does not get distracted by Trojan Horse concepts such as Asian journalism as it develops journalism education programmes.

What should journalists be taught?

There is never enough time to teach journalists everything we think they need to know. If you ask employers, audiences and newsmakers what skills, knowledge and values a journalist must possess, the list would be so long that the trainee would never leave school. Trade-offs are unavoidable and priorities need to be set.

One of the most common theories you’ll hear in industry circles these days is that journalists must develop digital media skills – they must learn how to report the news through Twitter and Facebook, or how to integrate a video clip into their online news story, for example. It is true that this represents the biggest change in how journalists need to be trained. It is also true that going digital is the most urgent task that traditional news organisations face.

However, we should not make the logical error of concluding that what’s newest and most urgent is also the most important. Journalism training should not compromise the basics – how to spot developments that people need to know about, how to gather information accurately and make sense of it, and how to turn all this into stories that are compelling and clear.

For the sake of argument, I would suggest that financial literacy (to be able to scrutinise balance sheets and national accounts) and knowledge of a second or third language (in order to report on ethnic minorities or neighbouring countries) continue to be more valuable for a print journalist than knowing how to code html or edit video with Final Cut Pro.

The most sensible solution is to think not in terms of the ideal individual journalist, but a balanced and diverse newsroom, with journalists coming from different educational backgrounds and experiences. Although I teach in a journalism school, I would be the first to say that newsrooms should not be made up of only, or even mainly, journalism graduates.

Who should build the profession?

Formal journalism or communication degree programmes within institutions of higher learning are today regarded as the pinnacle of media education. The first global census of journalism education, conducted between 2007 and 2010, listed around 2,300 university-affiliated or privately-run programmes worldwide. Media employers, of course, love having strong professional schools to draw from, because they can then add productive new staff to their newsrooms as easily as downloading a well-designed app.

However, employers themselves should bear the primary responsibility for their journalists’ training and development. Even if you have a degree in journalism, your ethical norms and practices will be shaped more by your senior colleagues and supervisors in the newsroom, who are in turn influenced by your organisations’ policiess.

Countless well trained and principled journalists feel trapped by editors who cut corners or compromise standards; the editors are given orders by their owners, who themselves claim to be powerless in the face of competitive pressures. So, the challenge of building a profession with high standards of competence and integrity needs to be embraced not only by schools and colleges, but also employers through on-the-job training; and professional organisations that can push back against pressures not only from governments but also from media owners. In Africa, a set of “Leadership and Guiding Principles for African Media Owners and Operators” was launched this month. A number of African media organisations have signed up to it. I hope the interim Myanmar Media Council will take a close look at developing a similar code for media owners here.

Journalism by professionals or journalism by all?

This was not a very relevant question 20 years ago, but it is an extremely important one today, when journalism isn’t produced only by full-time professionals working in news organisations, but also by amateurs who report and comment on public affairs through blogs and social media.

We still need the professionals, if only because a lot of news requires full and sustained attention, which is unlikely to be provided by citizen reporters who have other commitments and responsibilities, including the inconvenience of another day job. But, although building the capacity of professionals is still necessary, it is no longer sufficient. Citizen reporters are here to stay, and – even where governments try to restrict them, like in China – their role is growing.

So, twenty-first-century journalism education is not complete without education for citizen reporters. I should stress that many bloggers have legitimate reasons for wanting to remain different from the mainstream media; for example, they may want to combine activism and journalism, and so reject professional notions of objectivity and balance. However, they may be keen to pick up some skills from professionals, such as how to improve their credibility and influence. Such training probably works best when it is done for citizen media by citizen media, with background support from professional organisations, universities and NGOs that understand the spirit of alternative media.

Window of opportunity

I agree with what Toby Mendel said yesterday about a window of opportunity in Myanmar, and the need to do the right things quickly.

In many countries with more mature and entrenched media industries, it is extremely difficult to redirect the trajectory of professional development towards principles of public service, ethics and accountability. There are too many big vested interests who will block or hijack the agenda for change. Myanmar today seems to be ripe for building a framework for professional development that not only teaches how to do good journalism but also stays focused on why good journalism is necessary – for the public, and not for media owners or media professionals or those in power.

U Ko Ko spoke this morning about the chicken-and-egg problem for media development. I would like underline the importance of what he said: there is a cycle at work. The key point is that media is fundamentally different from most other industries because it is a taste-maker. There is no pre-existing demand for high quality public interest journalism. The market cannot demand what it has never experienced.

You have to cultivate the demand by actually doing it. In the worst case scenario, media growth in Myanmar will be driven purely by owners’ appetite for profits or influence, regardless of quality. This may work in the short term but will undermine journalism’s long-term sustainability.

In the best case scenario, you can encourage a virtuous circle, of a public that supports free, independent and pluralistic media because the value of such media has become self-evident. Media education is not the whole solution, but it is certainly part of it.