Sitting alone with my thoughts in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, I find myself anticipating the next leg of a journey that will find me in Brussels, Belgium, come morning light.
By day’s end Sunday, I should be laying my head on a pillow in Freetown, Sierra Leone, ending one journey, but really starting another.
Come Tuesday I will have been with the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at The Ohio State University for one year. When I interviewed for this position and talked about ways we might enrich the training of journalists — where we might go and what we’d do to make that happen — it’s safe to say neither director Doug Haddix nor I envisioned me being in Africa on my one-year anniversary.
But sometimes opportunities come to you. This trip on behalf of the U.S. Department of State is one such opportunity. Oddly, it fell into my lap last month while I was in New England for another Kiplinger speaking engagement. I remember sitting in a small café shop in Brattleboro, Vt., reading the email. Would you consider coming to Sierra Leone and working with the embassy to help improve the journalism climate? Who can resist an offer like that?
Since I accepted I’ve been cautioned by several friends and family about keeping my wits about me there, advice too numerous and obvious to share here. Duly noted.
But, as I peer over reports from the State Department and the United Nations, both of which have people routinely working in Sierra Leone on behalf of a free press, I find myself more concerned over the state of affairs for journalism than I do my own health.
To be blunt, it’s a mess.
Journalists are on the take, as in bribes. They make so little money they need to supplement their income. Diamond and gold mining companies have bought up newspapers, radio and TV stations, turning them into corporate mouthpieces. A journalist association meant to temper this apparently is rife with infighting and distrust. A news council set up with government-appointed officials is trying to work toward a more responsible press but accusations of favoritism and politics are common.
And then there is the central government that has jailed more than a dozen journalists last year on charges of criminal libel. They say if the journalists can’t regulate their behavior, the news council must and, if not, the government will step in. There is an 83-page ethics code for journalists and advertising/marketing people. Suffice to say, a lot of the code isn’t being followed. Still, throwing journalists in jail is no way to bolster a democracy that is little more than a decade in the making.
My job, one speech or presentation at a time, is to help mediate these problems. I need to encourage journalists to be more ethical. I need to tell them that basic news stories need verification. Rumor isn’t fact. It’s journalism basics in some cases. I need to talk about news councils, which are mentoring programs because more and more people in these journalism jobs have no formal training. I need to talk to college students and instill some ethical values. I especially need to convince leaders to stop jailing journalists when they offend them in print.
At times, I admit, I’ve characterized this effort as spitting into the ocean: A lone voice trying to undo so many problems. Then, I realize that perhaps the reason I was chosen for this assignment is because they see me as one agent of change, one who can capture minds and touch the professional souls of a few who will take up this struggle and move forward. That is undoubtedly the hope I have and share with U. S. officials. If your voice is strong and committed you can make a difference, even if it touches one person in the room and gives him or her the courage and resolve to make things better. In the end, that’s my job. I can’t live in Sierra Leone and make the changes for them. That’s all on them.
For the next week, speaking as an agent for change, I’ll bring a passionate voice for better journalism and a better democracy for the people. That will be my task.
Kevin Z. Smith is the deputy director of the Kiplinger Program for Public Affairs Journalism and the chairman of the Society of Professional Journalist’s Ethics Committee. He is a former national SPJ president.