Deconstructing the ‘visionary’ in journalism

Following an emotional reunion of media professionals from around the world, Photojournalist Fred Bonatto reflects on what it means to practice good journalism in a globalised, networked society.

WHEN I FIRST saw them, they were covered in grey blankets, perched over low mounds, just beyond a tall barb-wired fence. They could have been migrants or asylum seekers. Regardless, they were the very individuals frequently emblazoned by the media beneath click-bait headlines. Individuals.

Relatives-in-suffering of Aylan Kurdi, who may have just bobbed across the mediterranean on some type of raft. When I first saw them they simply stared back. They watched, as those with good passports were waved through a Calais checkpoint.

“On the return ferry from Calais, through the Folkestone gateways”/ Fred Bonatto

NOT MORE THAN forty-eight hours before, I had sat in the front row of a wide-open Amsterdam warehouse-turned-art-space with a trove of like-minded colleagues I’d never met before. All alumni of the Erasmus Mundus Journalism programme. The man who originally envisioned this great project in the field of journalism, Hans Henrik Holm, stood before the two-hundred there gathered and spoke of the the global crises at hand. Sharing the concerns of many a worried mind he declared we were at a “crossroads”. Surely those stranded in Calais could not imagine we would be reflecting upon the very forces that led them to such a precarious situation.

“Change is all around us,” Holm said. Friday the 13th in Paris hadn’t happened yet and Sharm El-Sheik was still a viable tourism destination. British aircraft of war were still waiting to pounce, poised on the sidelines of the Syrian war. Donald Trump had yet to reveal the true flavor of his uninspired bigotry. Danish politicians would still propose their most worrying asset-confiscation and counter-migration measures. There we were, sat reflecting on the change around us, yet to happen.

The crowd laughed at jokes rooted in the realities of our turmoiled world, and contemplated an image of a middle-aged Dane who had spat (or cleared his throat) on arriving refugees. As Holm spoke, all were reminded of the environmental crime engineered by the minds behind “Das Auto”. Across the Atlantic, we were prompted to reflect on the immeasurable corruption scandals unfolding in Brazil.

“A Dane confronts a Dane” / Fred Bonatto

These were topical points of discussion for an academic who had, for over a decade, concerned himself with the role of journalism in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. A world where the greatest and most pertinent stories seem to have become the most opaque — tangled in an unfathomably vast pool of information and disinformation. A world in which perhaps, the traditional mechanisms of reportage and investigative journalism are left ill-equipped for the reporting job at hand.

Who or what brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt? Could Josep Blatter really be made redundant or is a new political ruling class above the powers of law? Who will be held accountable for the murder of a river millions of Brazilians rely on for their survival? How could we possibly prevent another Parisian style attack in Europe?

“Five Mundus alumni discussing whatever it is you discuss when you get five international journalist on the same table” / Fred Bonatto

These are clearly not easy questions — their answers require a combination of considerations that extend beyond the traditional who, what, when, where and why. The Russians and Egyptians have reported differently on a matter that, in decades past, would have spurred declarations of war. Surely, they must be asking different questions to different people. At the very least the conundrum has shown that determining the cause of an airliner’s demise has proven to be an imperfect science at best.

However much the still-prevalent print and online tabloids might make it seem so, good journalism is not made of easy questions and it is certainly not aggrandised by mediocrity. Great journalism is born from perseverance, curiosity, passion, ability, talent and luck. Virtues that appear to be the ones which have, for an entire decade, united journalists from all walks of life and over 100 different countries under the Erasmus Mundus banner. Hans Henrik Holm was speaking to a crowd of determined individuals. Professionals committed to engaging faithfully with the stories and individuals that matter to them.

The reunion ceremony presented an opportunity to reflect upon a European and trans-continental academic effort that professor and Mundus Journalism alumni Teke Ngomba called an ‘assemblage of opportunities with historic proportions’. Opportunities which have allowed some of the best minds in journalism to go on and become involved with publications of global reach. Opportunities-turned-bylines that will continue to build the corpus of tomorrow’s great writers, photographers, film makers and academics.

For 10 years now, the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Journalism, Media and Globalisation has united budding journalists through a “civilisational community of fate”, and given them the conceptual tools to be able to identify and engage with the complex problems faced by our global communities.

For traditionalists who believe in objectivity and the power of rigid guidelines, the Mundus Journalism approach may be off-putting. Topics of analytical journalism, international relations, world history and scientific methods for social scientists comprise the core of the programme, and allow for an expansion of more sober journalistic training conventions. In essence it is a programme that promises a better way of practicing journalism, and the way alumni have become engaged with the widest range of international and local matters seems to reinforce, if not fulfil this promise.

“A passion palpable in tears” / Fred Bonatto

In a time when we may, in fact, be living through what is something of a New Great War, innovative approaches to journalism and journalism studies should be embraced. If the problems and questions become more complex, so should the tool kits available for their deconstruction.

Samuel Huntington prophesied that “the fault lines between civilisations [would] be the battle lines of the future”. Perhaps the Calais refugee camp is one of these fault lines. But who’s fault is it? Can we return to imperialist history to better understand these new migratory pressures? Do we speak to a community leader of a refugee camp? Might he or she say something different than a coordinator appointed by a Brussels bureaucrat? How quickly can we answer these questions and do we even need to? Are we merely observers or are we active participants?

The voice of journalism is collective. A two way avenue of information and interest that has the power to, at the very least, document the change happening around us. Europe is changing. Calais is changing. The world is changing.

Though I have not, for my own reasons, roamed the grounds of the Calais refugee camp and reported on this story, I have seen their plight. I was watched by them as I drove through with my good passport and understood, a little bit better, the divide we have very much collectively created. How this could possibly be rectified is a big question, one which I am not apt to answer at this time. One or two of my colleagues, however, could be. One has volunteered at the camp. Another has found her calling at the Greek refugee front lines. Surely they have stories to tell. Stories that will be enriched by their professionals’ abilities to look eye to eye to someone so different yet understand the causalities behind their current perils. Colleagues who have been bound by a common desire to better understand journalism and how to practice it in the post-digital era.

It’s always difficult to declare an idea as visionary until we ponder it in hindsight, but after 10 years, the Mundus Journalism programme may be nothing less than that.

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