Knight Fellows Have "Profound Impact" in Africa

Sep 232011
  • Knight International Journalism Fellows Meredith Beal, Brenda Wilson and Joseph Warungu in Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa – The Highway Africa conference held here this week is the largest gathering of journalists on the continent, bringing together leaders who are promoting better reporting, better media management, better innovation in the digital arena and better laws to help and protect journalists. As the conference came to a close, I was proud to think that ICFJ’s programs – led by the Knight International Journalism Fellowships – are setting the standard in all those areas.

Three current and one former Knight Fellow attended the conference with me. They are among 20 fellows who are now leading or recently completed projects in Africa. Other ICFJ programs are working in still more countries. The missions of those programs: Everything from building associations of health journalists to launching new broadcast programs on important development issues, from training corps of citizen journalists to pioneering mobile delivery of news, and from developing new business strategies for media organizations to building stronger associations to advocate for journalists’ rights.

Together these programs are having a profound impact on the continent – not just on its journalists and media organizations but on societies as a whole. From Nigeria to Uganda to Mozambique, hospitals are providing better services, vaccination campaigns are controlling diseases and factories are cutting pollutants – all because journalists working with Knight Fellows are exposing problems and pushing officials to address them.

The three fellows who attended this conference with me are Brenda Wilson, who will improve coverage of health issues at South Africa’s largest broadcaster; Joseph Warungu, who will build a continent-wide network of journalists focusing on life-or-death development issues; and Meredith Beal, who will help media organizations across Africa develop better business strategies to support quality journalism. Each of them is just starting, and understandably, each is anxious about the challenges ahead and the imperative to leave behind something lasting and transformational.

The three new fellows and I had lunch with Sylvia Vollenhoven, a veteran South African broadcast journalist who recently completed her own fellowship in Ghana. She achieved fantastic impact – helping Joy FM in Accra and its sister stations across the country launch a new hour-long program called “Hotline.” That show digs deeply into the issues that matter most to Ghanaians, dissecting problems and engaging audiences to help find solutions. One of her trainees was recently named Ghana’s Journalist of the Year for work he did on “Hotline,” and other trainees also won national awards.

But despite her success, Sylvia reassured the new fellows that they’re right to worry about what they’ll achieve and whether our investment in them will prove worthwhile. For the first four months, she said, she wondered whether she was accomplishing anything at all. Journalists at Joy FM thought of the hour-long issues-oriented show as a step down from covering the presidential palace or Parliament, and the station’s management balked at devoting the resources that the show needed. Sylvia said she began to think that she was going to be a failure.

But then things began to change. Journalists found they liked the rare chance to spend time exploring every angle to a story instead of rushing out the day’s latest political squabble. The show proved popular with audiences, and advertisers noticed. Joy FM launched the show’s second season with great fanfare, now convinced of its value. The quality of the shows kept getting better.

And now the awards, validating all the hard work and investment. Now, another Knight Fellow, Justin Arenstein, is working with Joy FM to pioneer a new mobile news delivery service. Sylvia's work has led the station into a whole new platform for reaching audiences with vital information.

It was a good message for Brenda, Joseph and Meredith to hear. I was greatly impressed with their dedication, intelligence and creative ideas. I know they will have as great an impact as Sylvia did, or more. So will all the other Knight Fellows and ICFJ programs working all over Africa.

And Africans – not just African journalists, but all Africans – will be better for it.