Lisa Schnellinger knows exactly how important professional journalism is to developing democracies. As a working journalist herself, she travels across Asia and the Middle East advising her colleagues from those regions on coverage of elections, politics, corruption, and other key issues for all societies, especially those in transition.
She's trained journalists in some of the most dangerous places to work in that profession, including in Pakistan with UPI, and in Afghanistan with Pajhwok Afghan News, Afghanistan’s largest independent news agency. We sat down with Schnellinger to discuss her experience working with journalists in these volatile areas and what women journalists have to contribute.
RFE/RL: Having just returned from Pakistan, what are your impressions of the state of the media there?
Lisa Schnellinger: Pakistan is in the true throes of a democratic struggle. The general picture that it’s an interesting and dangerous time. You’ve got a couple of generations that have some idea of what independence is and what kind of independent media is economically viable, and that goes hand in hand with democracy itself maturing.
RFE/RL: What were the biggest elections reporting skill gaps to breach in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
Schnellinger: The problems are so similar in all countries, including in the United States. Journalists covering an election need to be in touch with what ordinary people are saying and not just what the candidates are saying. There is a tendency to do one-source stories or just follow the candidates around. Or "inside baseball" reporting--assuming readers have the same knowledge and background as the reporter. Inflammatory speech and fear mongering attacks against minority groups, wild accusations--these things really get flung around in the media and feed the rumor mill, so the basic role of journalists to fact check was something we really emphasized.
RFE/RL: What obstacles do women journalists in this region face?
Schnellinger: Some of our best reporters were women, and they were great in ways you wouldn’t expect, in breaking news as well as in-depth stories. For some there were no obstacles. But on the other hand, there was one woman in Pakistan covering health issues who got incredible harassment from her extended family who disapproved of her work. They went so far as to make a fake Facebook page with revealing photos aimed at discrediting and shaming her. So there is a range.
In Afghanistan it’s very hard to separate the dangers for journalists from the dangers for all citizens. It’s just a dangerous place for everyone, more so for journalists, and even more so for women journalists. There is a tendency to blame that on the Taliban, but it’s broader than that. Women are not supposed to put themselves in the public eye. There is a lot of anger and resentment directed at women who achieve. They become a lightning rod for resentment over their achievements, which are not attainable by everyone.
RFE/RL: Why do these countries need women journalists?
Schnellinger: You might think that if you have fewer female journalists, you’ll have less women’s news, which is true. But having women in the newsroom also makes a difference in how the business is run. It’s not just what women cover but how they influence all coverage. When you’re working on a story and you ask your desk mate for contacts, if you’re a male reporter sitting next to a female reporter, you’ll get different sources and contacts than if you have an all-male newsroom.
Men and women working side by side was such an anomaly when I was in Afghanistan that we actually had tourists who came to our newsroom because it was so rare to see men and women working next to each other. Over time that has changed.
RFE/RL: How does this compare with your experience in Georgia?
Schnellinger: When I worked in the Republic of Georgia in 2002, the field was dominated by women. I had chalked this up to the Soviet-style feminism, but I found out it was actually because journalism there was such a low-paid and low-prestige profession that it was predominantly women who were doing it. But it is vital. Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in “The Washington Post” that training journalists in Georgia did more than "5,000 marines" could have.
RFE/RL: That’s a powerful statement. What impact specifically has professional journalism had in Georgia?
Schnellinger: When I was there, there was no electricity in Tbilisi; people depended on generators. Police were constantly asking for bribes and perpetrating daily assaults on Georgians. I was trying to get journalists to write about these things. They were pretty fatalistic at first, insisting nothing would change, but in the end they did start writing about these issues. Now, there is so much electricity I've heard that they leave the lights on at night, and law enforcement is one of the most respected professions. That’s why we do what we do.