Fear and Loathing in Dushanbe?

by Christopher Schwartz on 6/6/2013

Smiley face

While preparing for our latest cycle of training workshops in Central Asia this year, my team at NewEurasia and I have made an unhappy discovery about Wikipedia: its English-laguage resources on journalism are organizationally scatter-brained, are dishevelled content-wise, and worst of all, hardly exist in any of the languages of Central Asia (and frequently, most other languages).

What does exist in Russian or Kazakh (one hardly ever sees another Central Asian language) tends to be lopsided, perfunctory, or just downright strange — turns out that Russians and Kazakhs are more interested in gonzo journalism (Kaz. and Rus.) than in traditional reporting…

This find was made after talking with a Central Asian colleague about the proverbial “inverted pyramid“. When I first mentioned the concept, my colleague looked at me like I was talking about an ancient Egyptian curse. I immediately went to Wikipedia to find out what the concept would be called in Russian, and that was when I realized it wasn’t in the website.

From what I could see, it was nowhere in the Russian Wikipedia, not even the page on news style (cf. here). My colleague joked that perhaps instead of teaching journalism, we should offer workshops in “Fear and Loathing in Dushanbe”.

Now, I’m notorious as something of a cultural relativist among my more ardent Western/Westernizer compatriots, but I don’t totally dismiss the notion of something universal. The inverted pyramid is a case in point: a simple and elegant training tool for journalists new and old, with vast applicability. One need not completely abandon personal, cultural, or regional idiosyncracies in order to adhere to it. Yes, it does mean one cannot go 100% gonzo — although even then, if one reads Hunter S. Thompson carefully, he also occassionally adheres to it.

This journalistic pharaonism is not just limited to the standard news report, but also convertible into other formats — have you noticed the way I’ve written this post? (*cough) As a philosophy student, I’ve even tried using it in my various course papers (much to the chagrin of my professors, who consider journalism to be “cheap philosophy”… well, anyway!)

The inverted pyramid’s invisibility beyond the English Wikipedia is very problematic, to say the least. However, this isn’t the only problem. Wikipedia’s portal on “Journalism” and especially “Newswriting” in English and the languages of Central Asia (not to mention many other languages) appear to be in abysmal shape. Consider the following examples:

  1. The English-language “Journalism” portal has a quite diverse list of 67 pages, ranging from concepts like “aberrant decoding” to the “Gambia Press Union”. The Kazah-language version of the portal has 58 pages, almost all of which are devoted to specific journalists.
  2. The crucial “Newswriting” portal, which links to pages concerned with journalistic style and methodology, barely has 14 pages in English, and does not exist in any other language. Moreover, many of the pages listed in this portal are not really relevant to the specific issue of news-writing, e.g., “Churnalism” and “Bus plunge”.
  3. Several of the English-language pages included in the “Newswriting” portal have no equivalent page in a Central Asian language (or any other language). Extremely important lacunae are the “Fact checker” and “Headlinese” pages.
  4. Conversely, the English-language language entry for “Editorial independence” is a mere paragraph, whereas the Russian entry contains some more information (the only other version, in French, is extremely extensive). However, the Russian version focuses upon a specific type of editorial independence (i.e., within a privately-owned media context).

Note that I don’t mind gonzo journalism — actually, I kind of dig its epistemological inversions. However, it is of little utility to the inexperienced journalist, much less his/her audience. So, I think that I’m going to organize something via NewEurasia and the Central Eurasian Scholars Media Initiative to fix this situation. Contact me if you would be interested in helping out: schwartz [at] neweurasia [dot] net

(Full disclosure: I designed the jpeg currently gracing the English Wikipedia entry. I’ve also edited some portions of its text.)

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– author of 5 posts on Registan.net.

Christopher Schwartz is a graduate student at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. He has two MA's in Islamic history and philosophy and is currently in a pre-doctoral program focusing on liberal and democratic theory with a focus on the post-Soviet sphere. He is also the editor-in-chief of neweurasia.net, Central Asia's first and largest citizen-journalism network, and editor of the book CyberChaikhana: Digital Conversations from Central Asia, a crowdsourced contemporary history of the region.

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