Journalism demands sacrifice, says veteran American journalist
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Alison Bethel-McKenzie is an American-born award-winning veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience managerial and consulting positions in the media throughout the United States and West Africa.
She recently held the role of Executive Director of the International Press Institute (Vienna, Austria), the world’s oldest global press freedom organization and is a visiting professor of print and investigative journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media (IIJNM).
Alison was in Rwanda recently to discuss with journalists about ‘Digital first.’ Sunday Times’ Sharon Kantengwa sought her impressions of the Rwandan media.
With over 30 years’ experience in media, how can you say the media has evolved over the years?
A lot has been changing night and day. Media today is modernized. When I started, one would go to the press house and look at the newspaper under a white board and physically cut out papers if any change was made with type setting. Today, everything is electronic and online.
We were very elaborate and worked around the clock practically. I liked the old school because it was fun where we drank and smoked a lot, not like today where some newsrooms are just boring. We took a lot of pride and had to specialize on just reporting and writing. Today journalist have to write for the newspaper, write for the web and tweet and take videos and photos at once.
How would you relate Rwandan media to the other African countries that you have visited?
I think that the media here is quiet and not quite aggressive. It’s not aggressive and not in a good way. I was surprised to find out that the US secretary John Kerry came here and not one Rwandan journalist interviewed him. That is not good. A journalist is not quiet; he asks questions and stirs things up. Your president is ridding corruption and empowering journalists and I don’t think your kind of environment is like that of other countries. Meanwhile, other journalists across the continent are breaking news and going to jail for their work. I think that journalists here need to improve their spirit of journalism.
In the era of rising social media platforms, how can you describe a journalist?
A journalist is someone who seeks out and gathers information to disseminate to the masses for the greater good. A journalist adheres to journalistic best practices and subscribes to the Journalism Code of Ethics. A journalist is fearless, well-read, curious and serious about his or her profession and the role it plays in democracy. A journalist is objective, always learning, always seeking truth and transparency.
How would you convince journalists that this is the core field where they belong?
People who love journalism and want to be in it, will stay. But I think that there are some journalists that we lose because we don’t pay enough and they choose to join other related fields like PR, or Communications to make more money. Some romanticize journalism and don’t realize the sacrifices that come with it. I think those who stay are those who have a strong sense of how noble and important the profession is and the pillar of democracy.
What makes you passionate about journalism?
It had never crossed my mind to opt for any other profession, but when I left the newsroom, it was very difficult because I wanted to stay and write for I had stayed a bigger part of my life in the newsroom. My family was worried more than I was because print was not doing well and so I had to think long and hard about it and I decided that I would also offer a lot to the profession by lobbying for press freedom. I moved to Europe, and later Vienna to work for the International Press Institute and I am very proud of my work and that I was able to still write. All was not lost.
Who is Alison in person?
Alison is a person with vast experience and interests. She is a child of God who wants to leave a mark on this world; who embraces diversity and who loves the ocean, great food (mostly Asian), Africa and America. She cares deeply about her profession and her family and friends. She is so much more than the sum of her parts.