The session was supposed to last about 45 minutes. In the end, we spent about 2 hours talking about ethics, writing styles and pay.
The students were participants in an English Immersion program sponsored by the U.S. embassy in Brasilia. (Point of transparency: My son, Philip, ran many aspects of this program during his summer break from college.)
Several of the students were already active in their own high school newspapers and even had opportunities to work for their local newspapers. Others were just curious about what it means to be a journalist.
One of the topics that came up quickly was the recent repeal of a licensing requirement to be called a journalist.
Under the dictatorship of the generals, one could only be called a journalist if he/she took a series of college-level courses and passed a government exam. The democratically elected governments of Brazil have been slowly tearing down the laws of the generals. The Lula administration just got to the journalism law earlier this year.
The students wondered how one could be a good journalist without proper training. (And to them, proper training meant government licensing.)
I talked about how college courses are helpful but that day-to-day exposure to interviewing, writing and working with an editor was a better way to build professional journalism.
When asked about the importance of objectivity in reporting, I replied there is no such thing. Journalists, I said, should strive for fairness.
That opened up a very long discussion about how reporters should or could be fair, even if they have prejudices about a topic.
The poor pay for journalists was a shocker for many. (I guess they see the TV stars and think that is what all journalists are like.) I pointed out, however, that journalists play an important role in defending and promoting democracy by holding businesses and government officials accountable for their actions.
Near the end, one student asked if journalism was a dangerous profession. He noted that reporting about drug running and corruption could lead to journalists being beaten or killed. I responded, that dozens of journalists have already been killed this year for doing their jobs.
This seemed to shock the students. I added that even with all the threats against journalists there are still many more who will continue to report and demand accountability from government officials.
I summed up the evening discussion by — for the 5th or 6th time — noting how democracy needs free and independent journalism and free journalism needs democracy.
In the end, I walked away with the impression that if only half of these students enter the noble profession of journalism, the future of Brazil is rosy.