The road to journalism: Why we choose to be journalists


This is intended to be an occasional series in which practising journalists or students of journalism at the end of their studies give a personal account of why they are pursuing journalism as a profession.

It is a modest attempt to piece together the ethics and motivations that drive future and current journalists.

Sydney, you came from a war-torn Liberia in 1990, where some of your family were tragically murdered. After escaping imageLiberia with international assistance you resettled in Ghana and began to make a new life for yourself. You tried quite a number of different types of jobs there. In 1998 you were awarded a Russian government scholarship to study at the Russian People’s Friendship University in Moscow.

What motivated you to apply for a scholarship and move from Africa to Moscow? Why Russia?

Well, I always had a craving for knowledge. I wanted to pursue higher education at a university. As a refugee living in the camp sharing my little knowledge with my fellow Liberians, I understood that in order to be more productive and effective in imparting knowledge I needed to further my education. I heard about this scholarship through an NGO called Assistance for All Liberians, which was based in the Liberian Refugee Camp (Buduburam) Ghana. It aims to meet the needs of Liberian refugees in Ghana. I applied for a scholarship through this organisation and got it.

Actually, I came to Russia because the first scholarship I applied for fell through. It was offered by the Canadian government for study in Canada. But I did not make the marks that would have qualified me for the scholarship. So I waited for a second chance. This time, it was Russia.

Do you have, in hindsight, any regrets of this move?

Frankly speaking, looking at the education I have achieved in this country, I do not regret the huge step I took in coming to Russia. I do have some qualms of the xenophobic attitude of most of the Russians I encounter here. Nonetheless, I believe that it cannot be compared to what I have achieved here.

Besides studying journalism, what other activities have you got involved in at the university?

I have been the president of the Liberian National Student Union of the Russian Federation for a number of years now. I earn some funds sewing and altering garments for students and diplomats. I am the choir director for the Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy; I sometimes participate in musical concerts.

Why did you decide to study journalism, rather than, say, medicine or engineering?

Looking at what happened in my country, Liberia, I strongly believe that the media is a vital instrument for reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation. It can also be very proactive in its coverage of armed conflicts and be a key player in the resolution of such conflicts. With this in mind, I chose to study international journalism.

At what stage did you want to become a journalist?

After having read a bit of what journalism is all about and the role it plays in forming public opinion, how fast and wide you can cover an audience through the power of modern technology, I thought, ‘Yes.’ I could study journalism and maybe I could use what I’ve learned and contribute immensely in the reconstruction of my country and Africa as a whole.

Moscow is entirely different from what you were used to before entering university. What is it like studying journalism in Moscow?

Well, the press here is very much state controlled. As a journalism student here, you cannot freely deal with some issues, especially as a foreign student journalist. However, I must stress that this place is never short of events to report or write about.

The topic of your doctoral thesis examines mass media and war. Can you please tell me a little more precisely what the thesis is about?
The topic of my thesis is the role of the media in the coverage and resolution of armed conflicts on the African continent from 1990-2008.

The thesis is devoted to the study of the media’s coverage of armed conflicts in Africa.  It gives an analysis of the activities of national and international media in the coverage of armed conflicts.

The thesis emphasises the basic causes and occurrences of armed conflicts in Africa and gives an analysis of national and international media activities in all stages of conflict emergence. Additionally, it analyses the media’s coverage of international organisations’ efforts to halt and resolve conflicts in the region.

You have been living in Moscow for some 10 years now. This probably means you are somewhat adapted to life there. Are you going to return to Africa after you graduate?

I would like to use what I’ve learned to help the continent resolve its problem with armed conflicts. If you will agree with me, over half of the population of Africa lives on under a dollar a day. This is a very serious problem in Africa that needs to be addressed. One of the main causes of underdevelopment and poverty in Africa is war - even though AIDS, malaria, and bad governance are other factors.

If Africa continues like this, I’m afraid the issue of poverty and under development will not be resolved.

Do you think what you have learned in Moscow can be applied amid the conditions in Africa?

I strongly believe what I’ve learned can be applied in Africa and beyond.

What do you think of the general trends in the mass media on the African continent?

I think it has been more than four or five decades since many countries in Africa got independence. By now Africa should have its own satellite in orbit to enable her to report herself to the world, and the world to its people… instead of relying on Western media powerhouses.

A journalist to be, what qualities do you see as being critical for the job? Is it hard to live up to these, your own expectations?

When we speak of independent media or independent journalism, one could think that this is not possible in Africa. But I think it is. Ghana is a typical example. When the libel law was introduced, it became possible for the press in that country to have freedom. So to answer your question, freedom of the press is very critical for the job as well as journalists, following the ethics of the profession to the letter.

What kind of advice and tips can you offer future would-be journalists who may be either contemplating or starting on a path similar to yours?

I would advise future journalists to be very vigilant in their endeavours and pursuit of the profession. This is a profession that has so much at stake. Credibility must be earned. This credibility can only be achieved through objective, impartial and neutral journalism.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

Quite frankly I cannot predict the future. However, five years from now I would like to be actively involved in the profession using my skills to help solved the many problems on the continent caused by conflict.

Thank you for agreeing to share your views. I understand that you defended your thesis on 20 February, 2009. I wish you all the best for the future.

Sydney is now waiting to receive his doctorate in Moscow before returning home.

Flickr map image from user MercyWatch