Reporting During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Glimpse into Our Central Asian Journalist-In-Residence Program

By Gwyneth Ramsey

“Participation in this program gives me a chance to meet with journalists from Central Asia. I think together we can make a big transformation in our countries and help our youth to develop, improve skills and learn more about our experience,” said Aidai, a news correspondent in Kyrgyzstan.

Aidai is part of the second cohort of the Central Asian-Journalist-In-Residence (CAJIR) program, an exchange that brings together journalists from across Central Asia with their American counterparts in Texas, hosted by the Texas International Education Consortium (TIEC) and Meridian International Center, and funded by the U.S. Department of State.

“I have a huge desire to develop this field, motivate journalists to create reliable and qualitative materials, and help journalism in our country prosper,” explained Aidai.

While in-person travel for the group is on hold because of the pandemic, the 15 members of this cohort participated in an 8-week long virtual exchange alongside program alumni. The program connected participants with guest speakers and included discussions about topics such as the role of local media during COVID-19, disinformation campaigns on social media, fact checking, and freedom of press in the United States.

Reporting During a Pandemic: Shared Lessons

Among the timely topics covered in the program was the role of journalism in updating the public on the COVID-19 pandemic. Many participants viewed the CAJIR program as an opportunity to gain an understanding of how media outlets in the United States are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. “I would like to know in more detail and firsthand about how American journalists and editorial offices re-organized their work technically during this quarantine period,” said Beruniy, a freelance journalist from Uzbekistan and an alumnus of the program.

The CAJIR program provides participants with the opportunity to improve the accuracy of their reporting, growing their own credibility as journalists while also expanding their professional networks within the media industry. CAJIR participants interacted with a diverse group of guest speakers to learn about how American media is covering the pandemic, compare it with their own experiences as journalists in Central Asia, and expand their reporting techniques.

“I wanted to be educated in the field of journalist investigation and fact checking,” Daria, a journalist from the Kyrgyz Republic, explained.

“I like that the instructors were open and answered all questions from participants. Their experience, articles, and presentations motivated me to work hard and develop skills in media and journalism,” said Aidai. She admired the speakers’ transparency about local media throughout the United States. She spoke about developing her expertise in journalism and the new topics she will apply to her journalism in Kyrgyzstan.

“I prefer face-to-face meeting rather than online communications,” said Daria. “However, these days it was a great opportunity to educate and be aware of journalist’s work in many regions. I’ve enjoyed this (virtual exchange) format. We were able not only to speak to each other, but also participate in virtual tours.”

During the program’s video conferencing sessions, participants were given the opportunity to speak about their own experiences in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic as a journalist. Aside from staying healthy while reporting on the pandemic, the primary challenge is working remotely.

“I think that working remotely for me has been one of the biggest changes during the pandemic. Apart from that, we are still able to connect with experts online, get certain information to verify what is on social media and what is available online. I think that this pandemic has shown me that there are so many ways to be creative while being online,” explained Aigerim, a freelance journalist from Kazakhstan and an alumna of the program.

Overcoming the Challenges of Disinformation

“I want to learn more about being flexible to everyday changes and in any circumstances still be able provide people with useful and interesting information,” said Daria.

As a correspondent for an international TV channel, Daria was eager to understand how to recognize disinformation campaigns. She wants to encourage viewers in Kyrgyzstan to utilize their critical thinking skills before coming to a conclusion when gathering information from news sources.

The journalists voiced aspirations to bring about change through objective news reporting in their home countries. That means a commitment to building their own skills to ensure that sources are verified and information is fact checked to prevent disinformation campaigns.

“[Through this program] my worldview and knowledge about journalism has expanded,” said Aigerim. “I definitely think that this experience will have a lasting impact on my understanding of the complex issues in different societies across the globe. With journalism, hopefully, these issues can be discussed and then be brought to a table for some partial solution.”

Daria shared her biggest takeaways from the program discussions. “After this program, I will check more carefully all sources of information. The online course provided us with additional tools for struggling with disinformation and fakes,” she explained. Many guest speakers addressed the spread of disinformation campaigns in the United States and the responsibility of journalists to counteract them.

“The role of mass media these days is significant and our responsibility for the content has increased as well. I deeply understood how important it is to be ready for fact changes in order to expand your audience and increase its credibility,” Daria said.

Building a Network Virtually

This program enabled participants to build connections with one another across Central Asia and strengthen their knowledge of best practices as journalists.  “I think that there is a growing resilience in the journalism community and I do hope that it will lead to more fruitful cooperation and fantastic joint projects that will bring use to our societies,” said Aigerim.

 “(The CAJIR program) was a great opportunity to not only strengthen skills in journalism, but to create big international projects and motivate journalists in our countries to create reliable and qualitative content” said Aidai. She discussed the ways in which she planned on applying the knowledge she acquired through this program to her current journalistic practices and projects. She hopes to bring new ideas to Kyrgyzstan and apply best practices from journalism in the United States to develop the press in Central Asia.