Nearly two years after their trip to Tunisia, three Western professors and their Tunisian counterparts have published the first of several journal articles exploring student journalist motivations for pursuing the craft.
As Tunisia began to stabilize its democracy after the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that led to the ouster of longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Western faculty members' research aimed to understand how student journalists view themselves in that context and what empowers them to work ethically.
Using a $100,000 grant from the U.S. embassy in Tunisia, journalism associate professors Brian J. Bowe, Joe Gosen and professor Carolyn Nielsen took six Western students to Tunisia in fall 2019 to conduct research and give the students hands-on reporting experience in a burgeoning democracy.
Ray Garcia, a Western alumnus who participated in the trip when he was still a student, said he remembered jumping at the unique experience as soon as he heard about it.
“I recognized how valuable of an opportunity it was to expand my research and reporting experience while gaining a more worldly view of how journalism operates in different countries,” Garcia said.
Bowe said the two-week trip was a culmination of his many years studying the language and culture of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and his interest in the evolving democracy in Tunisia.
“I thought it would be fascinating to work with Tunisian journalism students, who are just starting their careers in a field where the norms around a free press are still developing,” Bowe said. “The timing was also great for the Western students because press freedom in the United States has come under increasing threat in recent years.”
Six thousand miles and nearly a day of flying later, that idea became a reality as the Western professors and students arrived in Tunisia.
As they traded their down jackets for t-shirts, Western students headed to the Institut de Presse et des Sciences de l'Information (IPSI) in Manouba, Tunisia where they met their Tunisian counterparts.
In the field
To better prepare both Western and Tunisian students for their work, each morning was spent in the classroom at IPSI. At the institute, Bowe, Nielsen and Gosen had the opportunity to collaborate with Tunisian professors Rafia Somai, Soumaya Berjeb and Arwa Kooli.
Together they taught students about everything from journalism ethics to photo composition all while helping them produce original stories.
Throughout the trip, there was culture shock on both sides, Kooli said.
She said she remembered students regularly being surprised that Western students didn’t “really look or act like how Americans are supposed to be in movies and TV.”
For Nielsen, the trip went beyond challenging surface-level assumptions about popular media portrayals. During her lesson with Kooli, the pair combatted student beliefs about data access in each country.
“What we were able to show them was that there was tons of open-source public data in Tunisia, and in the U.S., even though we have laws protecting access to public information, those are often shielded from journalists by gatekeepers,” Nielsen said.
In the afternoons, students swapped their textbooks for notepads and headed out of the air-conditioned school and into the searing heat of the city. They spent their time conducting interviews and gathering footage with their Tunisian counterparts as they covered the upcoming election, the rising cost of school supplies and collected stories of young Tunisians.
Khouloud Kechiche, one of the Tunisian students involved in the trip, remembered the early mornings in the classroom and bustling days in the city with fondness.
“It was a lot of information and hard work in a short time span, but I walked away with so many new skills, ideas and connections with people,” Kechiche said.
Out in the city of Tunis, Gosen was most surprised by the willingness of average Tunisians to speak to the press.
He recalled one instance when students requested an interview from a woman driving away from a school supply store.
“As she was driving away, one of the Tunisian students approached her [for an interview]. She said ‘absolutely.’ She stopped the car, got her kids out and did an interview on the spot,” Gosen said.
Along with fieldwork, student journalists also had the opportunity to see Tunisian democracy up close when they were invited to a press conference just days before the 2019 presidential election.
As students filed into the grand hall, they were met with top election officials who answered their questions and gave them insights into the process.
“Our student journalists had the opportunity to hear directly from the people responsible for running this important event. It felt like a moment when both journalism and democracy were functioning in the way they are supposed to,” Bowe said.
Looking to the future
Although the pandemic halted the Tunisian students' return trip to Western, Bowe said he’s happy with the progress and relationships that have come from the initial trip.
With one journal article already published, another under review and two more conference papers being prepared for presentation this summer, the team has stayed busy despite the distance.
As people begin to read and share their research, Kooli hopes they’ll focus on the hope young Tunisians have for the future of journalism in their country.
“There are a lot of motivations about improving the media landscape in the country,” Kooli said. “They want to see quality journalism become the norm.”
Bowe said he hopes their Tunisian-centered work will fuel the creation of MENA-region specific journalism training materials. He explained that with the often high prices of textbooks that are often U.S.-focused, there’s a lot of untold culturally specific knowledge.
“There are some concepts and best practices that translate from one region to another, but journalism training materials should reflect people’s lives,” Bowe said.
As the university prepares to welcome students back to campus in the fall and pandemic restrictions lift, Nielsen said she’s looking forward to future opportunities like this one.
“I hope that we will continue to find opportunities for students to travel abroad without going into deep debt. [Those experiences] form who you are as a journalist and as a person,” Nielsen said.
Even today, Garcia said the trip influences how he views the privileges U.S. journalists have. Press freedoms are still developing in Tunisia and journalists are still required to get permits to report and record in public, Garcia said.
“I can’t say the fourth estate in the U.S. is perfect, but I can say that American journalists have a lot more access and power when it comes to holding corrupt powers to account,” Garcia said.
Among everyone involved, there’s a sense of anticipation for the day when their Tunisian counterparts can embark on their return trip to the U.S.
“[The cancellation] was unfortunate because it was such a unique opportunity for everyone involved, but we’re still hopeful,” Kechiche said.
Despite the passage of time, the trip remains fresh in the minds of professors and students alike.
“It was one of the absolute highlights of my career,” Nielsen said. “And to experience it alongside our students was really impactful.”