Journalism professor brings craft to Indonesia

It’s a new year for journalism professor Janet Steele, and once again, she is facing a classroom of students who hope to learn the ins and outs of reporting. But this time, instead of presiding over a room of students in Foggy Bottom, Steele is teaching on the other side of the world in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Steele is one of three professors from GW working abroad this year on a Fulbright scholarship. She is spending her second tour of duty as a teacher at the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute in Jakarta, where she is introducing narrative journalism to students from East Timor to Kuala Lampur.

“There is a hunger for the kinds of discussions about good journalism that we take for granted in the U.S.,” she said in an e-mail.

While GW students are eager to move to the professional world of journalism, she noted, her Indonesian students are thoroughly interested in the theory of what it means to report in a free and democratic society.

“Nobody needs to teach Indonesian journalists how to write a story, but they’ve never really had a chance to think and talk about what journalism means and what the role of a journalist is in a democratic system,” she wrote.

Whenever she is not teaching, she spends time planning for a five-year comparative study of television news in Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. She’s also writing about the media in East Timor after 24 years of Indonesian military occupation.

This year’s trek is not Steele’s first visit to the region. After falling in love with the area on a vacation in 1992, she returned as a Fulbright scholar in 1997 at a pivotal moment in Indonesian political history. After 32 years of dictatorial rule, the government of General Haji Mohammad Suharto collapsed.

“The transition from a controlled to a free press system made me acutely aware of the relevance to Indonesia of many of the issues and problems we focus on in the School of Media and Public Affairs,” she said.

It was the perceived lack of reaction to these events that made Steele realize that few, if any, people in the United States knew much about what went on in Indonesia.

But seven years later, people in the United States were painfully aware of what was going on in the world’s most populous Muslim state. When a tsunami smashed into the island of Sumatra Dec. 26, 2004, Steele was in Jakarta. When reports of the damage rolled in, she used her skills to translate stories that were coming out of the affected areas into English for an Indonesian magazine.

“It was in translating these stories that I noticed several interesting things about story construction here in Indonesia – especially too much reliance on official sources,” she wrote.

She has used the experience to teach her students this year about the importance of using the stories of ordinary people – instead of official reports – to capture a story.

The international attention also influenced the government to open up to journalists and foreign governments. The tsunami also meant “a lot more people have now heard of Indonesia than before,” Steele noted.

Steele will continue to teach and research for her media projects in Indonesia and the surrounding areas until her Fulbright scholarship ends this summer.

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