Debating the Values of U.S. and Pakistani Media

Feb 232012

I never saw this trip to Pakistan with the International Center for Journalists as a one-time event, a go-and-come-home gig, something that was good for creating fodder for speaking engagements around Tallahassee and not much more.

I’m not much of a sightseer for the purpose of just seeing sights, either. And I certainly wasn’t going halfway around the world to fill a scrapbook with photos, as magnificent as the sights might be.

I went for the journalism and to be with other journalists in a place where being a journalist is as much about personal courage as it about developing skill sets and learning to tell better stories. Journalists have had much to fear from the political leadership in Pakistan, and now the political leadership is learning that as journalism takes root and grows, the wayward politician may have much to fear from journalists, too.

I filled a mental scrapbook with those images and stories, of journalists who, despite the viewpoint of the international community, refuse to even consider the assertion that they are not free to report as they wish-even if doing so means risking their own safety or having to flee the country.

As we visited media outlets and exchanged ideas in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi – and sometimes debated the values of Pakistani and U.S. media – we did our best to understand each other’s points of view. Our meetings turned strangers into acquaintances and those acquaintances grew into professional relationships, which have in some cases grown into friendships, or will over time.

It wasn’t easy and won’t be easy moving forward, even with those Pakistani journalists who we weren’t meeting for the first time, who had traveled to America as part of this ICFJ program. Frankly, sometimes the Pakistani journalists had a lot to get off their chests before the exchange of ideas could begin. In truth, though, only a handful of the dozens of journalists we met had no real interest in developing relationships with the nine Americans in our group.

But that is the whole point, right? We went to improve the quality of journalism and understanding. What was stagnation and frustration – even anger – at America and many things American largely has a chance to move forward because of the work of ICFJ and the journalists from both of our nations, along with our wonderful coordinators on the ground, the Mishal group.

Early on during our visit, for example, I was told that journalists in Pakistan are interested in protecting democracy and asked if that was what I cared about, too. Not exactly, I said. I’m a journalist and I’m interested in journalism, and that would serve democracy best. That involves focusing on truth-telling and serving the public good. There is a subtle, but distinct and critical difference, I said.

If my goal is anything but performing quality journalism, I can be unduly influenced in seeking and reporting the truth – compromising my journalism and, over time, eroding democracy.
These are the conversations we had, that can only begin in face-to-face discussions, but now must continue. And they will occur, not between strangers, but among professional colleagues and friends.