Drew Sullivan: We need some new blood in journalism
Drew Sullivan: We need some new blood in journalism
Drew Sullivan, media development specialist and founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, talks about international involvement in Bosnian media and its future.
As a person involved for almost a decade on media development in Bosnia and Herzegovina, how do you see the results of the international involvement in the media sphere in BiH? What are the lessons we can learn?
I think any thoughtful person involved in media development in Bosnia and Herzegovina would recognize the successes but would overall be disappointed in our overall achievements. I think if you look at the media today, it is in many ways worse than it was a decade ago. The biggest problem is that many independent voices have been swallowed up by political and crime interests. And a second problem is that standards have not really changed. Today there exists very few media who give the people the information they need to make decisions in their life at a high standard. The media is still often overly opinionated, inaccurate, sloppy, and infused with political or business interests. For the amount of money we spent, we did not do so good.
What is, according to you, the biggest success of the international support to media sector in BiH, and the biggest failure? Please give us examples.
If we could do it all over again, I sometimes dream of making one newspaper, one TV station, one magazine and one radio station that was truly great. Not Bosnian great but internationally great. BiH deserves that. Unfortunately, you can’t go back.I am proud of the work we did with the Centar za istrazivacko novinarstvo (CIN). I think CIN is still a quality news organization that is truly independent of all of the interests in BiH. The reporters care about being good – not popular, but good. There are other successes and the trainings of many organizations have bred a generation of good reporters. But the failure has been in my mind in two areas: media ownership and editors. We are still stuck with many editors who should have been retired. They are nasty, opinionated people with too many connections to politicians.They are not professional journalists. We need a generation of new, young and idealistic editors willing to embrace the fact that journalism for the sake of journalism is enough and you don’t have to be involved in ugly politics. You just need to tell the people what they need to know and trust in them to act right. If you look at the $100 million that has been spent on media in BiH, there is still precious little to show for it. If we could do it all over again, I sometimes dream of making one newspaper, one TV station, one magazine and one radio station that was truly great. Not Bosnian great but internationally great. BiH deserves that. Unfortunately, you can’t go back.
What are the biggest challenges for the journalists in BiH today? Are they capable to succeed?
Of course Bosnian journalists are as good as any in the world and they have succeeded. For example, Miranda Patrucic from CIN and OCCRP has trained journalists in America, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, France and other places around the world. She is a Bosnian journalist and if I was starting a news organization in New York she’d be one of the first persons I hired. It’s a great achievement when for years Americans and Scandinavians were training reporters here and now our reporters are going back and training them in how to track down offshore companies and how to report on organized crime. I have known many good Bosnian journalists. However, maybe the majority or reporters who could be great are damaged by three problems. 1) Not aiming high enough - the Bosnian definition of investigative reporting is wrong and fails to meet international standards. If Dani is your definition of great investigative work, you are not aiming high enough.You need deeper reporting, greater accuracy and greater levels of proof. 2) They work for bad editors who don’t push to be as good as they can be and 3) They work for politically motivated media and you don’t need a good reporter to do biased reporting. Ultimately, in the end, the greatest limitation to Bosnian reporters is their own desire to be great. When they do, they have proven to be among the world’s best.
Is the role od journalists and the media in the fighting against the corruption overestimated?
No. Media plays a very important role in fighting corruption. But you can’t be corrupt yourself and then effectively fight corruption. Nobody believes Dnevni Avaz because it has used it pages to attack its political enemies and to promote its corrupt friends. You lose credibility. Media here suffers from a serious affliction of really bad credibility. The public is smarter than we journalists sometimes think and they don’t believe us anymore. That’s because credibility is like a young tree. Every time you take money for a story or attack a political enemy, you whack that tree with an ax. Eventually it dies. Our media here has whacked that tree so many times that many media is nothing but a stump. If the people do not believe your newspaper or magazine or TV show is fair and accurate, they will not believe what you are saying about corruption and you will be ineffective.
Bosnian definition of investigative reporting is wrong and fails to meet international standards. If Dani is your definition of great investigative work, you are not aiming high enough.But also, media is not enough. You need active civil society and rule of law. CIN did the story that led to the resignation of Nezdad Brankovic. That’s where everything works. They did the story in a credible way. People believed it and that led to Dosta and other organizations protesting. The video CIN shot appeared in a music video on corruption. People got angry. Then, a prosecutor indicted him using paragraphs from CIN’s story in his indictment. While he was never convicted, his career was over. That’s how it should work. Unfortunately, while the truth appears in many Bosnian media, its sometimes hard to separate it from the fantasy.
Old media are in crisis. How can journalists in BiH can use the possibilities of new media and turn it into advantage?
New media lowers the barrier to entry. Anybody with a website can be a media producer. While there are many challenges (such as the fact that much of the advertising market is politically connected), there are many opportunities for Bosnian journalists to create meaningful and worthwhile new media projects. I am surprised there are not more. In other parts of the world journalists have been far more aggressive at taking advantage of these opportunities. I think it will come. We need some new blood in journalism here and with that there will be more interesting work being done.
What sort of projects in the media field can international community support in the near future in BIH?
There is a surprisingly large amount of support here still despite the belief that all international money has left. It hasn’t and it won’t. The big projects by the big international implementers have been failures when looking at the money spent and their effect. But there are smart donors out there doing innovative things and you’ll see more of them. Everybody wants a success and successful models are being copied.
I can’t tell you how many times editors have told me here that the people in BiH are stupid or peasants and that’s why they are not successful. I don’t think that is true but let’s pretend it is. Okay. So your readers are peasants. So make a newspaper that peasants can understand. Serve your people no matter who they are. That’s what journalism is about.I think Bosnian journalists will gain more not from the big development people but by the increasing ties between journalists. CIN journalists are working on a half dozen international and regional projects funded by organizations like Rockefeller Brothers, my organization OCCRP and Google. These are more closely tied to the journalism world and not the development world. But it’s a tough new world and you have to show impact and you have to show it quick. There are many, many opportunities through Knight Challenge Grants, International Press Institute grants and others. There is funding available on IndieGoGo and other crowd sourcing websites. But these require great ideas that are cleverly implemented. Bosnian media needs to be more involved in this. But it won’t come from the current generation, it will come from the new one.
Public service is in crisis. Print media are in crisis. What is the future of media and journalism in BiH?
I am an optimist. We need good media for a country to be successful. Media in America has had to reinvent itself and it is doing that. We will need to do some re-invention ourselves in BiH. If we do that successfully, we survive. I guess the biggest issue is the people and this is why the old generation has failed. I can’t tell you how many times editors have told me here that the people in BiH are stupid or peasants and that’s why they are not successful. I don’t think that is true but let’s pretend it is. Okay. So your readers are peasants. So make a newspaper that peasants can understand. Serve your people no matter who they are. That’s what journalism is about. If you serve the information needs of the people, they will use your services. Each peasant vote is equal to the vote of your Sarajevo intellectual. If we are too good for our people, maybe we shouldn’t be journalists.
The greatest threat in the future is organized crime’s ownership of media. There are billions of dollars flowing into the region through a re-invented and strengthened regional mafia that is reaching a new peak of influence and wealth. The Balkans are the next Mexico although thankfully so far without the violence. But Montenegro, Kosovo and to an increasing degree Serbia are effectively states controlled by drug traffickers. That money and influence will easily buy out Bosnian politicians and have already to some degree.Some of our tycoons have been laundering the money of drug gangs for years and have created influential political parties with this money. Media will then become even worse and will directly serve the purposes of the new drug lords. Then we will have to really find new ways of getting our word out. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. But it will be interesting times ahead.