Voices of a New Democracy: Journalism faculty reflects on trip to Tunisia, research


Almost two years after their trip to Tunisia, three Western professors and their Tunisian counterparts published the first of several Newspaper articles explore the motivations of student journalists to pursue the profession.

As Tunisia began to stabilize its democracy after the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that led to the ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, research of Western faculty members aimed to understand how student journalists see themselves in this context and what allows them to work ethically.

Thanks to a $ 100,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia, Associate Journalism Professors Brian J. Bowe, Joe Gosen, and Professor Carolyn Nielsen took six Western students to Tunisia in the fall of 2019 to conduct research and provide students with hands-on experience reporting in a growing democracy.

Ray Garcia, a Western alumnus who took the trip while still a student, said he remembered hopping on the unique experience as soon as he heard about it.

“I recognized how this was a valuable opportunity to broaden my research and reporting experience while gaining a more worldly view of how journalism works in different countries,” Garcia said.

Bowe said the two-week trip was the culmination of his many years of studying the language and culture of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and his interest in the evolution of democracy in Tunisia.

“I thought it would be fascinating to work with Tunisian journalism students, who are just starting their careers in an area where the standards around a free press are still developing,” Bowe said. “The timing was also ideal for Western students, as press freedom in the United States has come under increasing threat in recent years. ”

Six thousand miles and nearly a day’s flight later, this idea became reality when Western professors and students arrived in Tunisia.

As they traded their down jackets for T-shirts, the Western students headed for the Institute of Press and Information Sciences (IPSI) in Manouba, Tunisia, where they met their Tunisian counterparts.

In the field

In order to better prepare Western and Tunisian students for their work, each morning was spent in a classroom at IPSI. At the institute, Bowe, Nielsen and Gosen had the opportunity to collaborate with Tunisian professors Rafia Somai, Soumaya Berjeb and Arwa Kooli.

Together, they taught students everything from journalism ethics to photo composition, while helping them produce original stories.

Throughout the trip, there was culture shock on both sides, Kooli said.

She said she recalled students being regularly surprised that Western students “don’t really look or act like Americans are supposed to be in movies and on television.”

For Nielsen, the journey went beyond questionable surface assumptions about popular media representations. During their lesson with Kooli, the pair fought student beliefs about data access in each country.

“What we were able to show them was that there was tons of open source public data in Tunisia, and in the United States, even though we have laws protecting access to public information, those “These are often protected from journalists by guards,” Nielsen said. .

In the afternoon, students swapped their textbooks for notepads and left the air-conditioned school into the scorching heat of the city. They spent their time conducting interviews and putting together footage with their Tunisian counterparts as they covered the upcoming elections, the rising cost of school supplies and collected stories from young Tunisians.

Khouloud Kechiche, one of the Tunisian students involved in the trip, fondly remembered the early mornings in class and the busy days in the city.

“It was a lot of information and hard work in a short period of time, but I came away with so many new skills, ideas and people-skills,” Kechiche said.

In the city of Tunis, Gosen was very surprised by the willingness of average Tunisians to speak to the press.

He recalls a case where students asked for an interview with a woman walking away from a school supply store.

“As she walked away, one of the Tunisian students approached her. [for an interview]. She said “absolutely”. She stopped the car, got her children out and did an interview on the spot, ”Gosen said.

Along with the fieldwork, the student journalists also had the opportunity to see Tunisian democracy up close when they were invited to a press conference a few days before the 2019 presidential election.

As the students entered the great hall, they met senior election officials who answered their questions and gave them an overview of the process.

“Our student journalists had the opportunity to hear directly from those responsible for organizing this important event. It was like a time when journalism and democracy worked the way they’re supposed to, ”Bowe said.

To look forward

Although the pandemic halted the return trip for Tunisian students to Western, Bowe said he was pleased with the progress and relationship that resulted from the initial trip.

With a journal article already published, another under review and two more conference papers in preparation for presentation this summer, the team remained busy despite the distance.

As people start to read and share their research, Kooli hopes they will focus on the hope young Tunisians have for the future of journalism in their country.

“There is a lot of motivation to improve the media landscape in the country,” Kooli said. “They want to see quality journalism become the norm. ”

Bowe said he hopes their Tunisia-focused work will fuel the creation of journalism training materials specific to the MENA region. He explained that with the often high prices of textbooks that are often US-focused, there is a lot of culture-specific knowledge untold.

“There are certain concepts and best practices that translate from region to region, but journalism training material needs to reflect people’s lives,” Bowe said.

As the university prepares to welcome students to campus in the fall and pandemic restrictions are lifted, Nielsen said she looks forward to future opportunities like this.

“I hope that we will continue to find opportunities for students to travel abroad without going into deep debt. [Those experiences] shape who you are as a journalist and as a person, ”Nielsen said.

Even today, Garcia said the trip influences how he views the privileges of American journalists. Press freedom continues to expand in Tunisia and journalists must still obtain permissions to report and record in public, Garcia said.

“I can’t say that the Fourth Estate in the United States is perfect, but I can say that American journalists have a lot more access and power when it comes to holding corrupt powers to account,” he said. Garcia said.

Among all involved, there is a sense of anticipation for the day their Tunisian counterparts can embark on their return trip to the United States.

“[The cancellation] was unhappy because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for everyone involved, but we remain hopeful, ”Kechiche said.

Despite the passage of time, the journey remains fresh in the minds of teachers and students alike.

“It was one of the highlights of my career,” said Nielsen. “And to experience it alongside our students was very memorable.

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