Journalists in Sri Lanka: covering the civil war

Sunday, 10 April 2016
I go back and forth about whether I should blog about my research. So far all of the journalists who have interviewed with me have elected to keep their identity public. However, my PhD education reminds me that revealing identities can be, literally, dangerous.

Anyway, I've learned a lot about the civl war from those who covered it in Sri Lanka. The challenges of covering a war can be immense - especially if the government fashions what you can report on. (Isn't that what usually happens in a war situation?)

Journalists had to deal with language barriers, a lack of access to areas where the fighting was taking place, a lack of verifiable information, land minds, and threats of violence to themselves and their families.

In Sri Lanka, there is state-run and "private" media. One journalist who works for a private media company explained what happened recently when she wrote something that a government official didn't like. "He held a press conference and used my name, talking about me to the other journalists. Of course we weren't invited to that press conference."

How do journalists here choose whether to work for state-run media or private media? Many say that it isn't a choice, they just seem to fall into a job, and they'll take any job to get their foot in the door. There isn't a formal journalism college degree in Sri Lanka, there is only a diploma (different level of education). Journalists who are educated may have graduated with a degree in Mass Communication (advertising, public relations, and some media writing) so they learn how to be a journalist while on the job. As one journalist explained, "If you can write decent sentences in English, you're likely to get a job." That is one of the main criteria for English media here. Concepts such as objectivity are somewhat taught by the more senior journalists to those who are new on the job.

I have found my job of tracking down journalists who will meet and talk with me about their coverage of the civil war to be difficult. Even those who have generously spent time with me interviewing, hesitate when I ask about the war. They don't want to talk about it. It is difficult for me to know exactly why (I have theories) and just asking the questions doesn't mean I'm going to get answers.

I think back now on the struggle to finish my dissertation and I realize that was great practice for perseverance. Time to make some more calls (I wrote about my love for calling people here). 

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