Here in Vietnam, debates that we’re having back in the U.S. about journalism, media accuracy, corporate consolidaiton, credibility, blogs and citizens’ media all seem pretty remote. But it turns out there’s more going on below the authoritarian surface than you might think.
The Vietnamese media is state-controlled. There are no privately owned newspapers or TV stations. They’re all owned by government or Communist Party-controlled organizations. (Vietnamnet, a new online news service, is one exception, using its status as new media to push the boundaries. I’ll be spending the day with them tomorrow and will write more about them later, but they’re still subject to the same press restrictions as all other news media.)
Since Vietnam’s Chinese-style economic reforms started, Vietnamese journalists have more leeway than they used to have to cover economic and social issues, but still there are a lot of topics they can’t go near: political dissent, criticism of government leaders, many topics related to religion and treat ment of ethnic minorities, etc. Press coverage of countries like the U.S., Japan and China is tighly controlled to keep that coverage consistent with official government policy.
Into this context come organizations like the World Association of Newspapers, which has been conducting a seminar here in Hanoi this week on newspaper management: how to boost advertising revenue and circulation, how new technologies are changing the media markets around the world, how to be more responsive to your audiences, etc. Of course all these things ultimately come back to fundamental issues of content quality, the nature and purpose of journalism, and questions of what readers actually want to read.
That’s where journalism training comes into the mix. My friend Jessica Smith is here on a program sponsored by the Knight Foundation to help train Vietnamese journalists. Trainers don't deal with larger, more sensitive issues of the relationship between government and media, of course. But they do promote journalistic professionalism by focusing on things like: the importance of things like fact-checking, citing your sources accurately, double-checking facts and figures given to you by official sources, writing compelling headlines and leads. In other words, they’re teaching people how to do stories that are more credible, interesting and readable from the public’s point of view. Apparently, many young journalists here are very responsive to this training and are eager to improve their work because they want their work to be respected by readers and viewers. In a state-run system where journalists are expected to be the government mouthpiece, and whose job survival hasn’t been linked to the readibility of their stories, there hasn’t been much incentive to do good journalism – even within the allowed constraints.
From what I gather from talking to some Vietnamese journalists, they’d like to be part of a more credible and commercially viable press. They want more leeway to do more. So they welcome the training and hope that there will be more of it.
What about grassroots media? I don’t think we’re going to see blogs emerging as an alternative or opposition press any time soon. It wouldn’t be politically possible for a hard-hitting alternative news blog – like Jeff Ooi’s Screenshots in Malaysia, for instance – to emerge here. There is one Vietnam Journalism blog run by a local journalist as a place for journalists to discuss their profession. It’s categorized as a private site rather than a news site. But he has to be careful about what gets posted there. As for other blogs out of Vietnam, most are written by expats talking about their lives and travels. The most famous is Noodlepie, devoted to food.
On the other hand, Vietnam’s MSM (mainstream media) seems quite open to using participatory media tools to improve their content and strengthen relationships with their audiences. VietnamNet has a section devoted to contributions from readers, along the lines of South Korea’s OhMyNews. Today I met an editor from the country’s most popular newspaper, Tuoi Tre, or “Youth”. He says not only do they have very active reader discussion forums, but they also welcome readers to write articles that get posted online and sometimes even published in the paper. People get paid about $10–20 for stuff that gets used. The editor says that his journalists have gotten a lot of story ideas from readers. They’re also developing a team of editors to collaborate directly with readers/citizen-journalists on investigative stories.
Of course, the investigative reporting can’t go beyond certain limits without people getting into trouble and a reporter was recently jailed for a news scoop exposing corruption. But such teams can at least ensure that the paper’s coverage delves into issues and stories that its readers are most passionate about.
Emerging participatory media in Vietnam. Who wouldathunkit?