Indonesian Journalism: Lessons for the U.S.?

Published on Feb. 4, 2011

American journalism is, as they say, “in transition.” But while the import of traditional values such as accuracy, balance, and professionalism are under question in the U.S., they remain the gold standard in places throwing off the yoke of autocratic rule and media control.

That is reinforced in a survey of journalists in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Since the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998, and the easing of restrictions on the press, the Indonesian media has experienced a renaissance. The number of journalists has more than tripled since the late 1990s, to some 30,000. Where there was once a handful of TV stations, there are now more than 150. Some 1,000 print publications crowd the nation’s newsstands.

Media drives public opinion. And in Indonesia, that public is being buffeted by, on one hand, a government that is arguably the most successful model of democracy in the Muslim world, and, on the other, the forces of Islamist militancy.

To understand the attitudes and values that drive the gatekeepers of the Indonesian media, my team interviewed more than 600 journalists scattered across the vast archipelago. The results, which will be published in the April edition of the International Journal of Press/Politics, have implications for the direction of the U.S. media, as well as U.S. foreign policy.

Americans may be questioning the value of professional journalism, but Indonesian reporters and editors see their own lack of professionalism and poor journalistic ethics as the greatest challenges to their industry. Where opinion rules in the American media, 85 percent of Indonesian journalists said reporters must always be objective; where a noblesse oblige reigns in the U.S. media, less than a third of Indonesian journalists thought their industry was doing a good job. And where corporate buyouts are consolidating ownership of mainstream media organizations into the hands of a few large corporations in the U.S., Indonesian journalists cited control by media oligarchs as one of their biggest problems.

In the U.S., questions are being raised about the value of a journalism education. In Indonesia, where there are few such schools, journalists crave professional training. And where many American journalists cashiered from their jobs are scraping by with “entrepreneurial” ventures that often generate little income, Indonesian journalists cite poor salaries—60 percent of them make less than $250 a month—as the primary reason for the so-called “envelope culture,” in which reporters accept money in return for stories.

Although they may aspire to certain American journalistic values, Indonesian journalists are no clones of their U.S. counterparts. They see it as their job to bolster society and show little appetite to take on an adversarial relationship with the government.

The findings echo the results of a similar survey we carried out in the Arab world two years ago.

In countries emerging from repressive media control, there is an excitement often absent from U.S. newsrooms these days. A sense of the possibilities. A commitment to being better.

Oh, and there is one other aspect of journalists in Indonesia and the Arab world worth noting: The majority are compelled to balance the obligation to report with the responsibility to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Not an approach likely to resonate on American cable TV.

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