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Bulgaria's quality journalism: still a baby

by Brownie Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 10:35:26 AM EST

I have personal reasons for being interested in this topic - I want to be a journalist in Bulgaria when I graduate. My definition of quality journalism is in-depth investigation of social and political affairs as opposed to shallow coverage of lighter, "human interest" aspects of life.

There are several factors that make quality journalism difficult to practice in Bulgaria.

First, due to self-censorship, few Bulgarian journalists engage in investigative reporting aimed at exposing the mistakes of those in power.

Here the only way to prove corruption, for example, is by using reconnaissance-like methods, but the Bulgarian Punitive Code prohibits this. That's why journalists attempting to uncover corruption usually end up in court. Although Bulgaria has implemented the Freedom of Information Act which gives journalists access to all types of non-confidential government documents, and although freedom of expression is the law, Bulgarian courts still tend to be conservative (anti-freedom-of-expression). They generally decide in favor of the plaintiffs, who are usually public officials. Journalists get sentenced in few of the cases, but the long and exhausting suits can be particularly discouraging.

Another factor hindering objective in-depth reporting is that Bulgarian media serve political and corporate interests. Our 2005 parliamentary elections are a notable example. Following is my translation of a quote from a Bulgarian publication:

[Bulgaria's] 2005 parliamentary election campaigns showed that many media outlets, even the major ones, volunteered to take part in the PR campaigns of those candidates who paid the most. Some of the smaller media outlets have even been able to make the same amount they make for a year merely out of advertising candidates. Selling almost 50 percent of their air time for political advertising, TV networks managed to make from 30 to 50 percent of their income for 2005.

These are the conclusions of a 2005 report about Bulgarian media created by the International Research and Exchanges Board, an international NGO working for better media, education and civil society.

An example of the difficulties faced by the few Bulgarian journalists who venture into objective investigative reporting is the bombing of the apartment of TV journalist Vassil Ivanov. This journalist has exposed several cases of corruption. Even Reporters Without Borders covered the story and condemned the attack.

The police are still investigating the case, according to the Bulgarian paper Dnevnik. In the past years, other investigative reporters have experienced similar things.

Another disincentive to in-depth reporting is relatively low payment, especially in print media. Even big media give their average reporters relatively low salaries. For example, friends of mine working for publications considered to be of higher quality, such as Dnevnik, Capital, and The Sofia Echo, receive around 400 levs (about $300), which is considered low even according to Bulgarian standards. These publications, which actually give the largest salaries, are based in the capital where life is more expensive than in the rest of the country. Television pays more.

Radio stations, especially the smaller ones, give such low salaries that often their employees need second jobs. This is what the general director of one of Sofia's popular radio stations admitted last year during a lecture at my university. Of course, the situation at her radio is the same, she said. Given the fact that the economy hasn't improved significantly, I assume the situation is still the same - or probably slightly better.

"To have money, become a banker, to have fun, become a journalist," said one of my journalism professors at the beginning of my first journalism class in college. At the time, three years ago, I thought he was being witty. Now I know he was right as well.

So instead of serious news, Bulgarian media, following in the footsteps of developed countries, are increasingly providing infotainment. For example, TV channels, including Bulgarian National TV and the other national channel, bTV, offer more entertainment than news, discussion and documentaries. And the coverage of serious matters is often packaged in an attractive, simplified way. The most widely read newspapers, the dailies Trud and 24 Hours, provide news where the shallowness of coverage is compensated for with emotion and stereotyping.

In journalism, as in theater, the audience makes up 50 percent of the performance. In the case of the Bulgarian audience, the news is bad. The majority of the Bulgarian audience, the middle class, is not critical of media because TV and Trud-like newspapers give it messages it wants to see - Bulgaria's problems are to be blamed on politicians alone, not on the public. Media thus do not encourage the establishment of a civil society and civic engagement. They merely perpetuate social myths and passivity.

The rest of the audience is comprised of the decision-makers from the world of politics and business. These are known as the Bulgarian elite; intellectuals are generally not in this category. They stand aside, make fun of the monstrosities they see and starve. Decision-makers read newspapers of higher quality and smaller circulation such as Dnevnik and Capital. However, because corruption is still widely-spread, most of the elite members have no interest in criticizing media and encouraging them to engage in in-depth reporting. They also do not have an interest in giving large salaries to the reporters working for the media they own or have some economic interest in.

Bulgarian media are still not as strong as they can be because they serve political and corporate interests. The result is a lot of infotainment and little serious coverage. The audience, which also plays a role in media's performance, does not criticize media - either because it likes what it gets from it (the middle class) or because it has no interest in strong independent journalism (political and business decision-makers).

Well, good luck!

There are fine examples of very good investigative Journalist, but what I as a non-journalist think, is you probably will not write a Pulitzer with your first article and the road a lot of solid, good working Journalists (like David Neiwert, f.e) have taken is working the "circuiut", establish yourself and develop an area of expertise withhin it, out of which you can then criticise or critically accompany developments.

Anyway, you will know better than I, but I think, the internet gives you a great tool, to test your writing skills - so you don;t ramble around, like I do, but can write a short, succinct and comprehensible sentences, that makes sense to your reader....

Again Good Luck!

by PeWi on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 10:56:06 AM EST
PeWi, thanks! I'll need luck and hard work, more than that. I don't know if i want to be an investigative journalist because i'm not quite into "people need to know at all costs and i'm telling them no matter what this costs ne." But I know i want to cover politics, so this means i need to know how to deal with investigative pieces.

Unfortunately, having majored in politics as well, i've become slightly cynical. And an investigative reporter, while he/she needs sophistication, also needs some passion about the wrongs they see. I've increasingly found myself saying, "oh, well, that's normal" when i read about such stuff in papers or when i see it in life.

As for Pulitzers: i took a course where we read such pieces and dissected them to see how they were written. Maybe i'm being envious, but i didn't find striking or brilliant most of the pieces we read .:)))

by Brownie on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 11:23:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Again, I talking out offf the ..

But it seems that an ear on the street is really what is necessary to keep you grounded. visiting the pub around the corner, keeping friends outside what you would consider your "social circle", becoming involved with a voluntary organisation on a basic level.

Cynicism tends to fail, where real people with real problems are involved.

by PeWi on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 11:27:24 AM EST
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talking about Journalistic heroes:

FBI Wants Jack Anderson's Files from BooMan

by PeWi on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 02:41:49 PM EST
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Yes, absolutely, the good journalist loves people - listening to them, observing them. A good journalist can take a mundane thing and turn it into a gem through forceful representation - be it verbal or visual.
by Brownie on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 04:44:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Really...good luck! And keep us informed on your progress!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 11:48:39 AM EST
Oh, if i have nothing better to do i'll probably end up with the Guardian - or worse, with the NY Times. But a good reporter can show fortitude in times of adversity, so...
by Brownie on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 04:46:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this diary.

I wish that we could see the other side of the coin too. I think both you and me (I also want to be a journalist, and I will be, I promise:)) are too young and inexperienced to see things that black. First you need to believe that you can make a change, and I know that you are just one of the many bright, young people in Bulgaria who can change the situation for the better.

Think of people like Ivo Prokopiev and Filip Haramandjiev (the publishers of the quality newspapers Dnevnik and Capital). They started like reporters too, but were smart enough to grasp the right moment and I think that so far they have managed to become successful, and their business is expanding. So be more optimistic ( at least until you graduate).

On the other hand, I could not agree more with you that the situation is far from perfect, and that one could easily lose enthusiasm once starting to become acquainted with the system. I totally understand you- I love journalism, I love writing, and I am interested in politics:). I am also horrified by the outrageous bombing of the apartments of Bulgarian journalists. And I don't think that a reporter's labour is worth $300. But I also believe that as long as someone has the enthusiasm to cope with the system and to give the best they can, efforts will pay back. In the long run...

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde

by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 11:54:59 AM EST
No, Little L, don't get me wrong. I haven't given up or something. I'm just trying to prepare myself psychologically.:)) I don't want to start with too much enthusiasm. I do believe i can make a difference and that's why i'll keep on working and learning. Good to hear there are others out there who want to do that too.
by Brownie on Wed Apr 19th, 2006 at 04:49:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Heh, you should read my very first Hungary diary! I hope it won't depress you but you'll be able to take it with humour - after all, in those two cases the truth got out anyway and reached at least one half of the electorate.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 12:30:12 PM EST
It IS tragicomic. Can serve as a perfect example of why language accuracy matters, but then this was just a front. Apart from that, i was surprised that this has been happening in Hungary - media oppression and stuff.

Maybe i should just cover fashion and do restaurant reviews. It's till about being bold and trying to find the truth... Art reviewing doesn't sound bad either.

by Brownie on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 01:29:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, I certainly didn't want to discourage you from going for political journalism!!!

To mitigate the unintended consequence, I note that the issues dug up in those articles were further researched even after the verdict. (Ironically, some of it was done by a satirical magazine.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 04:32:09 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, DoDo, I was just joking. I am actually grateful i read your diary because it shows what reality, at least one slice of it, is like. And it also shows that it's not just the Balkans that have bad stuff going on.

Somehow, in my mind, covering politics and being a war correspondent have always been one thing. Probably because my imagination has been inflamed with stories from my favorite journalism professor who covered for Sky News war in Afghanistan, Lebanon and ex-Yugoslavia. I've learned from his accounts that while not always exciting, the battlefield is of course dangerous and in certain respects being a girl makes it more so.:)))

I was talking about female war correspondents to a Vietnam veteran this summer. He agreed with me. "Yes, i remember there was one female journalist nearby. She was just puking all the time," he said. Maybe he exaggerated, but it sounds funny.

by Brownie on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 05:24:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I would definitely reconsider my desire to become a political journalist if The Vogue offered me to write a column for them, or just be a regular contributor to its pages:-). Rather more comfortable than puking in Vietnam:-)).

I can resist anything but temptation.- Oscar Wilde
by Little L (ljolito (at) gmail (dot) com) on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 06:41:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But puking has its advantages too, doesn't it?:)
by Brownie on Thu Apr 20th, 2006 at 07:00:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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