Prof works to stabilize troubled foreign media

Ian Kriegish

For journalists in democratizing nations, providing unaltered, substantive news comes at a high price.

They face the challenge of supplying socially responsible journalism while fending off government censors and profit-seeking ownership.

Medill Prof. Craig LaMay has been working to help mitigate the financial instability that plagues international journalism. LaMay says low-interest, below-market loans should replace grants given to support responsible media and teach media companies entrepreneurship.

More than a dozen Northwestern faculty and fellows from multiple fields met Friday in the Center for International and Comparative Studies to discuss LaMay’s work. His presentation shared the tentative title of his new book awaiting review for publication, “Democratic Enterprise: Dilemmas in Media Assistance.”

“The truth won’t put food on the table,” LaMay said. “The only choice for these media is to become for-profit firms to bridge the gaps in credit and managerial ability.”

Western organizations have worked to aid “free” and “independent” media in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia in the name of ‘civil society’ since the mid-1980s.

“The idea that free press can exist alone doesn’t exist in former state-run societies,” said Medill Prof. Jon Ziomek, who attended the event.

The problem has become more prevalent as grants dry up and more journalism succumbs to partisanship, government intervention and sensationalism. LaMay and others in the media-assistance industry are working to battle political and economic antipathy to hard news.

“Rational ignorance is the preferred position of most people,” LaMay said. “High-quality news is hard to make (financially) attractive.”

The departments of Defense, State and Justice as well as organizations such as Reporters Sans Frontieres and the McCormick Tribune Foundation run media-assistance programs. Programs train foreign journalists in ethics, management, technical assistance, ethnic fairness, regulatory law reform and civic responsibility.

Working definitions of “civil society,” “independent journalism” and “financial stability” remain disputed, LaMay said. Ideological differences further divide the field because American journalists tend to focus on objectivity, while others are concerned with nation-building and advocacy for the poor and disenfranchised.

“Some American journalists think they’re Moses with the tablets,” LaMay said.

Ziomek said he believes LaMay’s work is important because it is the search for the best way to develop “meaningful conversation in society.”

LaMay became involved in the media-assistance industry, researching and working with journalists in the Balkans, Latin America, South Africa, Southeast Asia and other areas.

“LaMay is easily the best faculty member on some of this stuff,” said Ziomek. “Medill could do more of that.”

Reach Ian Kriegish at [email protected]