When Tim Kenny, a former USA Today foreign editor, went to Bucharest, Romania to teach journalism abroad, a student asked him a question he wasn’t expecting: what was the role of fate in the media? Kenny said that when he responded that fate, a sense that events are predetermined by destiny, doesn’t play much of a role in American life, the student became angry and his peers felt the same.
“They kind of agreed with the kid about the notion of fate and its importance,” Kenny, who taught journalism for seven years at the University of Connecticut, said. “If you have a sense that fate is determining what is happening to your country, I think you’re going to have a different perspective on how journalism works.”
This and Kenny’s other experiences in 45 countries throughout Europe and Asia, fill the pages of “Far Country: Stories from Abroad and Other Places,” his newest collection of essays which will be featured at the UConn Co-op Bookstore Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 5:30 p.m.
Kenny said in addition to sharing his experience as an international journalist, he wrote the book to highlight the cultural differences he has observed between the United States and other nations.
“Americans live in a society that’s really talented despite all the political woes of the moment and because of that we tend to think that the world is culturally the way we are,” he said. “There really are profound difference and we tend to gloss those differences over.”
“Far Country,” the story of his time as a professor in Azerbaijan for which the collection is named, brings the unique values of one such place into focus.
There, Kenny wrote, he found the reporting of his six graduate students initially constrained by a culture of government-controlled broadcasting and pervasive propaganda leftover from the eurasian republic’s time in the Soviet Union. He said it was difficult to sort through the tea leaves to the truth of a matter in a country that announced the winner of it’s 2013 presidential election a day before the vote was even taken.
“They knew abstractly what journalism was like in the U.S., but they weren’t living with the daily sense of how journalism works,” he said.
That left it to Kenny to teach his students, ranging in age from their mid-20’s to late-30’s, the basics of accuracy, verification and questioning authority as a reporter. While five of the six students would continue on to further hone their skills in Tbilisi, Georgia and Jordan, they also maintained their own perspectives on the role of journalism in society. In stark contrast to America’s never ending news cycle, one of Kenny’s younger students refused to report on the case of two missing children found hiding at home after police launched an investigation into their whereabouts.
In her words, “nothing happened:” children were lost and found all the time, there was nothing else to it.
Kenny said he’s still trying to wrap his mind around these differences, but it can be difficult not to bring an American perspective into another country. When he was working in Kosovo, a republic established on the border of Serbia in 2008, he lived with constant power outages in an unheated apartment until someone suggested he speak to his unresponsive landlady’s husband about the matter.
Sure enough, he said, the heat was on the next day.
As an American, it never occurred to Kenny that a husband would have that kind of influence over his wife, but cultural tendencies toward a more collectivist, patriarchial approach to living abound in his writing. In Azerbaijan, young women referred to themselves as “old maids” for being unmarried at 25, and his graduate students expected to continue their studies in Georgia as a group even when one of them stopped showing up for class.
“It’s a very clannish place, people are more concerned about family and their group of people than they are about the country as a whole” Kenny said.
In many of these countries, like Afghanistan, this generally left people unwilling to risk the opportunities afforded by developing oil resources for the sake of journalism.
“They don’t really want to rock the boat too much because for the first time in their life, they’ve got stuff,” Kenny said. “I completely understand, if you’ve got kids you want to take care of those kids before you ‘taste the fruits of democracy’ so to say.”
Not all of Kenny’s time abroad was spent in class, though. In “The Siege of Sarajevo,” he recounts his experience reporting out of a bullet sprayed hotel in the heart of the city during July of 1992. In the early months of what would become a four year genocide of Bosnia’s muslim population, journalists like Kenny tore through the streets in white vans and uncovered truck beds to avoid sniper fire between safe havens.
Kenny said he covered areas like Sarajevo knowing he would have to take risks to get the whole story, which can only be gleaned through first person experience of a place and its people. It’s for this reason he believes international journalism will remain a staple of American media in the digital era of smartphones and Skype.
“A huge percentage of our information is relayed through others means than the word itself,” Kenny said. “You can tell if someone’s lying to you if their body language is telling you that, a lot is lost on the phone.”
There’s also value in having American reporters on the ground, he said. It may be expensive to send journalists abroad, but just as it’s difficult to view a culture outside of the American experience, these foreign correspondents are more attuned to the nation’s interests as well.
“If it was something that is of genuine interest as American story, there will also be a need to have American reporters cover that,” he said.
Kenny, however, doesn’t recommend budding journalists head to the frontlines just yet. He didn’t become an international journalist until well into his 40’s, when he felt he had a firm enough grasp on the profession at home to dive into another culture abroad, and he suggests others do the same.
“Those kinds of situations are extremely difficult for the reporters,” Kenny said. “Misunderstandings can become complicated if you don’t have a lot of experience.”
Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.