Ethical Quandaries

Photo: Pixabay

by Hilma Unkic

Young Balkan journalists say their theory-heavy training doesn’t prepare them for either the practical or ethical challenges of the job.

Aleksandar Djokic says his journalism education in Serbia lacked sufficient practical work to prepare him for not only the day-to-day demands of the job, but also its ethical side.

He complained that instructors taught journalism ethics at the University of Nis from outdated textbooks. Practical exercises mainly consisted of analyzing articles, says Djokic, a doctoral student at the university who finished at the top of his class in the journalism master’s program and now works as a journalist for Fake News Tragac and as a project assistant at the Belgrade-based Western Balkans Media Diversity Institute.

“Unfortunately, [journalism] is still a theoretical subject, full of dry and basically not very important information,” he says. The university’s journalism program needs to be adapted to today’s world and new textbooks adopted, or if no books are available, recent academic work can be gleaned for topical case studies, he believes.

Other young journalists in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina report having had similar experiences of the transition from school to the job market. Many say they left journalism school poorly prepared to handle the ethical dilemmas many journalists face during their careers – especially in a region where the media are constantly exposed to pressures from all sides, political, commercial, and ethnic. Non-profits and media organizations outside the formal education system are filling some of the holes, striving to keep journalists abreast of new opportunities, and threats, in this fast-changing profession.

Textbook Ethics

“From the start of my studies and throughout, what I lacked was practical work. During my studies, I felt that I needed to gain experience on the side,” says Delina Voloder, a journalist and master’s student in communications at Sarajevo University in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Like Djokic and many other journalism students of her generation, Voloder found her way to her first job through a mandatory student internship, in her case at a Sarajevo media company during her third year. Even though she had taken classes on a range of journalism forms, including TV journalism, during her internship Voloder encountered some essential skills for the first time.

Practical classes should be part of the curriculum from the outset, she says. As a positive example, she notes the student-written blog her online journalism class published.

Djokic edited the Student Daily, an online student newspaper, at the University of Nis, and says this practical experience was one of the positives of his time in journalism school. Still, he believes the university should offer more practical work in its regular classes.

When it comes to the subject of ethics, both Voloder and Djokic remarked that the classroom approach to informing students about the ethical side of the profession came only from a theoretical point of view.

“It is important that we respect ethics, but what is ethics in practice? What does it look like? How is everything that we need to know supposed to be applied?” she asks.

Teaching Journalism the Old-Fashioned Way

The way the subject is commonly taught at journalism schools, professional ethics comprises such principles as truthfulness, accuracy, fairness, objectivity, and accountability to the public. Respect for others and the need to be aware that vulnerable people might be harmed in some cases are also often stressed.

Sead Turcalo, whose remit as dean of the political sciences faculty at Sarajevo University includes the journalism and communications departments, acknowledges the lack of practical work in the nuts and bolts of journalism ethics in the classroom.

“There aren’t enough case studies where students are presented with some sort of ethical dilemma so that they can discuss it and see how those ethical dilemmas are resolved,” he says.

The study of journalism still tends to follow the teaching mindset set many years ago and is largely based on theory, Turcalo explains, but this could soon change. If what he calls a “slightly more serious reform of the curriculum” for media studies than previous efforts is undertaken next year as planned, there could be an opening to inject more practical work into journalism courses, to “connect the theory that the students receive with some practical challenges.”

Although Sarajevo’s journalism department lacks a television and radio studio, most of the equipment for the multimedia room is ready, and they plan to start a podcast soon, the dean says.

To fulfill their required internships, journalism students in Sarajevo have about 35 media companies and PR agencies to choose from. At the University of Montenegro in Podgorica, journalism students likewise do internships with a number of print, online, and broadcast outlets, master’s student Petar Klakor explains.

Internships provide very valuable training, yet there is a lot of room for improvement, says Klakor, who, in addition to his studies, works for the Makanje youth-oriented news portal.

“Somehow at [journalism school] we acquire and equip ourselves with a lot of knowledge, but when we enter the labor market, we only then understand how things work, what our profession actually is,” he says.

Although a useful course on journalistic ethics is taught at his university, much of the material covered was theoretical, Klakor says, although in his class, students went through exercises in practical ethics. 

“We had the opportunity to put ourselves in a potential situation where we had to decide what we would do, what would be ethical. We also used some well-known examples, especially photographs.”

NGOs Play a Vital Role

Non-governmental organizations dedicated to the media community in the Western Balkans play a key role in the effort to improve the media environment in countries that fare poorly in rankings of media freedom and pluralism. One organization that has been involved in informal journalism education since 1996 is the Sarajevo-based Mediacentar. Every year, at least 50 reporters, editors, and students complete one of their courses.

Informal education of journalists is important, as it is a dynamic field where the working methods and technological achievements change rapidly, says Maida Muminovic, Mediacentar’s executive director.

Many courses specifically target young journalists and students nearing the end of their studies. “These types of programs are very useful for them because they bridge the gap of the lack of practical work at journalism faculties,” Muminovic says.

In northern Serbia, the Novi Sad School of Journalism – a civil society organization rather than a formal educational institution – is another of the Balkan NGOs actively seeking to improve the quality of journalism. Both it and Mediacentar are among the 19 media organizations making up the Southeast European Media Professionalization Network (SEENPM), host of a workshop for early-career journalists held earlier this year in Podgorica.

The 18 participants from eight countries learned the principles and new skills relevant to fact-checking, interviewing, and media ethics. The absence of these subjects in formal journalism education in the region shifts some of the burden onto civil society, SEENPM director Tihomir Loza says.

Non-governmental organizations have focused on aiding journalists to better understand and report on many fields of public life: the environment, intellectual property rights, climate change, judicial affairs, disinformation, and hate speech, to name a few. They also train media professionals in skills such as data visualization or open-source investigation.

All these are all hugely important and useful for journalists but they must be blended with journalism ethics and core skills to make sense, according to Loza.

“There’s no point in being able to visualize a data set attractively if you fail to ask the right questions around that data or if you or your editors are unable to make a sound ethical judgment on how, or whether at all, to publish any sensitive part of it,” he says.

At Mediacentar, the recent training curriculum has concentrated on solutions journalism, fact-checking, and debunking. While ethical issues come up at almost every training session and gathering of media professionals, Muminovic, the executive director, believes this strand doesn’t get enough attention.

“I think that we may have too hastily come to the conclusion that we got used to the topic of ethics at some point, that we have overcome it and that we know everything about it,” she says.

“We certainly do not know enough about it, especially not the younger generation.”

Note: Transitions is SEENPM’s partner in the project within which the Podgorica workshop took place. SEENPM director Tihomir Loza is a former deputy director of Transitions.