Saturday, 03 July 2010 21:40

Welcome to Grahamstown: the Media Education Capital of the World!

This week Grahamstown becomes the media capital of Africa and the Journalism Education Capital of the world, with the Africa Media Matrix its hub. It's already the National Arts Festival capital, and now the energy is set to be boosted by the influx of 600 new people whose passion is journalism.

The magnet for this global attention is the 2nd World Congress on Journalism Education. There are 350 journalism trainers from across the globe coming for this -- hailing from countries as diverse as India and Iraq, Moldova and Mexico.

WJEC2 is being staged in conjunction with the 14th Highway Africa. Over the years, this event has grown to become the world's biggest annual gathering of African journalists.

Together, the two events -- convened by Rhodes University's School of Journalism and Media Studies -- aim to improve journalism both continent-wide and worldwide, especially regarding the imaging of Africa.

Inspiration

In 2009, Rhodes JMS won a tough bid battle to host the 2nd edition of this congress. The first congress was in Singapore three years ago, and we worked hard to ensure that it would come to Africa next.

I attended the first WJEC and personal experience of meeting journalism teachers from elsewhere in the world opened my eyes to the value of difference. You learn huge amounts from other people's experiences, and in the process you also learn more about yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses. The idea of a world congress that will provide the same opportunities to participants is what inspired me.

Under the theme “Journalism education in an age of radical change”, the participants at WJEC2 will be able to take part in 130 research paper presentations, 16 task teams, and six expert panel discussions. Proceedings will be live-cast at http://wjec.ru.ac.za, and up to 11 parallel research sessions will be streamed simultaneously at various times.

We will be sharing experiences with each other – and with anyone who follows us on the web. The main focus will be on how training can help prepare journalists to deal with challenges of the recession, collapsing traditional business models and the Internet.

The topics under scrutiny range from teaching “entrepreneurial journalism” and cellphone journalism, through to building media literacy and training reporters in the coverage of violence.

Simplistic perspectives

It's intentional that these two conferences – WJEC and Highway Africa - are being held during the World Cup. The moment is ideal for analysing what the media make of the mega-event. And besides scrutinising the local impact of the coverage, there's also the issue of how the global media are reporting the story.

For example: Is the Cup coverage reinforcing the negative stereotypes of South Africa and Africa more broadly? Is there still an overwhelming spin about savagery and basket-cases? On the other hand, is there a different scenario at play -- one with diametrically opposite coverage of the continent through rose-tinted imagery? Is the picture one of smiling tribal dancers and awesome wild animals? Of swish stadiums and glossy shopping malls?

If the options are only between these two simplistic perspectives, the only choice for media audiences is to switch understandings from one extreme to the other whenever something affects the plausibility of one side.

How the media can avoid caricatures and instead capture the complexities, and reflect both the good and bad, will be high among the debates in Grahamstown. Unesco will use the occasion to present a model syllabus for "Reporting Africa" that may address some of the challenges.

As the two conferences serve to engage media stakeholders, it follows that there will be a swathe of media output about the deliberations.

There's a daily conference paper and the Highway Africa website will have a vibrant blog. SABC is co-host of the conference and will be covering it closely. For their part, the journalism educators' website will have live video-streaming sessions between July 5 and 7, including of 11 parallel research paper presentations. There will also be continuous tweets at #wjec2 and, of course, this blog will pump out daily conference coverage and columns like this one.

Thanks to conference sponsors MTN, Telkom, Absa and the local organising committee, delegates to the conferences will also get a lot of exposure to the football -- including big screen broadcasts where they can analyse the coverage in real-time.

It's always interesting to hear how outsiders see South Africa. On this occasion, outsiders with media mindsets will be giving their views right from the belly of the South African beast.

Projected Outcomes

Besides for networking with each other, I hope all delegates will learn something about the practice of journalism education, and something about South Africa and this continent more broadly. That of course is not an end in itself, but a means towards increased impact in journalism education that translates into better journalism.

In time, the conference delegates will leave, like the Cup itself. But having been part of a unique buzz will likely stay with them for a long time. One day, they'll tell their grandchildren that in 2010 they were there -- at the media capital of South Africa.

Prof Guy Berger is the convenor of WJEC2 and the Head of School of Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies.

Last modified on Thursday, 22 July 2010 11:08

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