Helping Africa Tell Its Story

Nov 30, 2002

Northern Ohio Live Magazine, December 2002

by Anton Zuiker

In recent years, Botswana, a country of 1.6 million people, has enjoyed one of Africa’s – and the world’s – fastest-growing economies. Since its independence from Britain in 1966, it has been a stable, democratic presence amid the strife in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola. Maybe because of that, it rarely gets much attention from Americans.

Government and academic leaders there would like to see that change. And Jae-won Lee thinks he can help.

Use the Internet to tell your stories, he says. If Botswana can do this, it might become the center of African news that all the world heeds.

Lee, a distinguished Cleveland State University professor of journalism, won a Fulbright Fellowship to travel to Botswana, where he’s spending this semester as a visiting professor of media studies at the University of Botswana. His mission is to show budding journalists there how, using the technology of the Internet, to tell the country’s story more loudly and to more people. Lee goes well prepared; in 1987, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies gave him a National Teaching Award for excellence in journalism teaching.

Botswana is aggressive in pursuing a national ambition, says Lee. “It wants to be a player at the regional level.” Like other countries in southern Africa, Botswana relies heavily on income from diamond mining (it’s the world’s largest diamond producer), and it is haunted by one of the world’s highest AIDS infection rates. Lee will use his time in the country to see how prepared the nation is to grab more headlines.

News media are undergoing rapid changes, he says. Social realities are more complicated, too. “We need a variety of reporters with different backgrounds,” like religion reporters who are preachers and medical reporters who are physicians. A preacher knows the Bible, and physicians know medicine. “In other words, they can get to the relevant material more quickly.” Lee encourages his journalism students to be goal directed, to “prepare [themselves] cognitively by being a double major.”
The Internet, of course, offers numerous new ways to gather and spread news. “The Internet is an equalizer,” says Lee. “Whether you attend Harvard, Princeton or CSU, you have the same Internet linkage.” He hopes to show students in Botswana how to use the Internet to their advantage, too.

One of two classes Lee is teaching is an undergraduate course in news writing and reporting. Through this he’ll reinforce the importance of globally shared journalism ethics and skills, notably the style and substance of the Associated Press wire service. But he’s open to learning how cultural differences can inform objective journalism practices, as well. How, he asks, do universal values clash with local values? Western media tend to focus on conflict, while Confucian-oriented Asian media write for harmony. And some Asian reporters accept cash for covering press conferences, he says, while that’s verboten to Western journalists. “It’s a never-ending debate.”

Lee’s other course, a seminar for seniors and working journalists, delves into “localizing international news and internationalizing local news.”
“If they do it right, there could be a major news service based in Botswana,” he says. “Indeed,” he wrote in his Fulbright application, “UNESCO’s 1981 MacBride Commission Report ? suggested that less reported parts of the world would immensely benefit from presenting regionally based news services.” A Botswana-based news service would collect news from throughout Africa and then dispense it to media outlets on the continent. Presumably, such wire stories would find themselves more easily into North American papers.

“If you want to communicate globally,” Lee says, “you need to expand your reach, both conceptually and practically.” A Cleveland newspaper story about the rapid transit authority is meaningless to an African audience, he says. “But you can’t assume anymore that your audience is just Clevelanders.” Similarly, an article in one of Botswana’s five independent newspapers about the country’s political system would have to explain early the advisory role of tribal chiefs. With a larger audience in mind, journalists in both Northern Ohio and Botswana can learn to make their stories more pertinent to global news consumers.

Lee, a CSU professor since 1973, is keen to find innovative ways of looking at the realities of the world. “Innovation is about the thinking. I’m in the conceptual business,” he says.

In an earlier Fulbright project, Lee traveled to his native South Korea for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. The Korean organizing committee had asked him to help in the media center, where 10,000 journalists from around the world congregated. While working with these reporters, Lee says he realized that these achieving men and women – some covering their eighth or ninth Games – needed medals of recognition just like the athletes. So he set about creating the biennial international Olympic Media Awards, to encourage substantive Olympic coverage, rather than simple medal-counting dispatches. (Lee’s Korean funding source dried up, but he’s hoping to find additional support in order to relaunch the awards.)

Botswana has the resources and talents to achieve its goals, says Lee. But the AIDS epidemic there – 39 percent of the population are infected with HIV, according to the UN – is a massive challenge. This made American news lately: in an editorial in late September, the New York Times called Botswana “a nation facing disaster.” With the help of international aid agencies, Botswana might have a chance in that standoff.

Meanwhile, Jae-won Lee will tour the country, looking for the ways to nurture the Botswana press.

If all goes well, Lee hopes to initiate an ongoing relationship between CSU and the University of Botswana. Soon, CSU professors could be shuttling to and from the Botswana capital, Gaborone, and Botswanan students could be riding RTA to learn about American newsgathering techniques.

And some day, maybe, your morning paper will include the dateline African News Service, Gaborone?

Anton Zuiker

© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC