Switching perspectives: Journalists as reflective practitioners

(This piece was first published on the Postcards for Peace blog on 13th March, 2019.)

Journalists are so engrossed in chasing stories, following up with sources, and working long hours that they rarely get the time to sit back and reflect on how their journalistic voice is shaped by their position, privilege and politics. Their gaze is directed outward as their job is to report on events unfolding in the universe, and help their audience make sense of what is happening and the multiple actors shaping that reality.

What would it be like to have journalists pause for a few moments and shift this gaze inward? What might they learn about themselves through this process? Once they become more aware of how their nationality, geographic location, race, skin colour, education, gender and sexual orientation inform their worldview, how can they integrate this self-knowledge into their journalistic practice?

These are some of the questions that animate the work of Beirut-based Jenny Gustafsson and Angela Saade who jointly run ‘Switch Perspective’, an initiative that works closely with journalists, bloggers, photographers, filmmakers, social media campaigners and communication officers in non-profit organizations towards developing what they call “media free of stereotypes.”

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They organize two-day trainings for professionals in Lebanon, and three-week workshops for professionals in Lebanon, France and Germany, with a strong thematic focus on migration. Their purpose is to foster a culture of critical thinking and self-analysis among media professionals. They have conducted four local trainings and two international workshops. The participants have included people of Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, German, French, Polish, Spanish, American, Dutch, Iranian, Moroccan and Algerian heritage.

“For as long as I have known, the media is biased. It reinforces stereotypes and power inequalities in the world by amplifying the voices of those who already have an established voice,” says Gustafsson, a journalist who grew up in Sweden but has made Lebanon her home since 2009. With an academic background in political science, she has reported on migration, development and cultural traditions from places as diverse as Saudi Arabia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Libya, Algeria, Tajikistan, Guatemala and Honduras. She is also the co-founder of Mashallah News, a digital platform highlighting urban popular culture and social issues from across the Middle East.

“Looking at my own life has made me aware of my privileges. I am a woman, I am not from an elite socio-economic background but I am White and my Swedish passport opens up doors that are not available to others. There are so many Western journalists reporting from Asia, Africa and South America but very few from these countries having a voice in big mainstream international news outlets. The Western, Orientalist world-view is setting the agenda for the rest of the world,” says Gustafsson.

She tries to use her privilege to tell stories that can challenge stereotypes. When she reports from places usually designated as conflict zones, she offers narratives that foreground beauty, agency and compassion instead of exoticizing or fetishizing the people there. A recent story of hers talks about a Muslim man in Kolkata who is the caretaker of a Jewish synagogue. Yet another is about a community of men in Saudi Arabia who don’t conform to traditional media representations of Arab men because they wear flowers in their hair.

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Saade is trained as an anthropologist. Migration is not a distant topic for her. Though she spent her early childhood in Lebanon, she was forced to leave for France with her family during the 1975–1990 civil war. She speaks Arabic, English, Spanish and French. She is the co-founder of Jibal and Tabadol, both of which are organizations concerned with social justice, cultural diversity and anti-discrimination.

“With the different terrorist attacks that happened in France, I found that even my activist friends who were sensitive to the topic of stereotypes and power dynamics in society were highly affected by the way Islam and migrants were being portrayed in media,” says Saade. Her personal experience as a refugee, and her intimate experience of French as well as Lebanese society have contributed to how she thinks about journalism. She finds these trainings and workshops rewarding because participants have expressed gratitude for the opportunity to learn about their internalized racism and Islamophobia through reflective practice and peer sharing.

“I felt the need for a deeper change not only in terms of the words we use but also in terms of how we approach issues. I wanted to bring media practitioners together to think constructively because they have the potential to highlight injustices, empower people, and affirm that reality is more complex than it might seem,” says Saade.

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They are aware that attitudinal shifts can take a long time, and results may not be seen in the span of two days or three weeks. Nevertheless, they want to continue doing this work. There are plans to bring out a publication that would document their content and pedagogical approach so that other facilitators can offer similar workshops and trainings. They are also looking for funding to start an exchange programme involving journalists from Lebanon and Bangladesh because knowledge sharing among these professionals from the global south can significantly intervene in correcting the lopsided world order that is reinforced by media.

(Photo credits: Switch Perspective)

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