Denver Post and 9News vet Amy Herdy's journalistic mission to Pakistan
Journalist Amy Herdy has jumped from place to place in recent years. Her first job in this market was as a reporter for the Denver Post -- but she left that position to take a behind-the-scenes role at 9News, as documented in the 2007 Message column "Life Swap." From there, she shifted into academia as the advisor to The Campus Press, the University of Colorado at Boulder's online daily, which made headlines earlier this year thanks to student Max Karson, whose satirical essay about Asians struck the wrong chord with many readers. For details, see the March Message offering "If It's War Max Karson Wants..." and the April followup, "CU's Campus Press Fights For Independence."
Still, these journeys pale in comparison to the one Herdy recently took. She just returned from Pakistan, where she laid the groundwork for an ambitious effort to help the volatile nation develop journalistic standards and best practices amid a press explosion unprecedented in its history. "Up until 2002, there were government controls on the media -- and when they lifted them, there was one government television station," says Herdy, whose fascinating Pakistan travel log can be accessed here. "Now, there are close to sixty stations -- and they estimate that in another couple of years, there'll be eighty. And there are three dozen newspapers. The media has taken off -- but they have no real journalism schools and very few methods of applicable journalism training. So they're winging it. People who have no journalism background whatsoever are working in these newsrooms. The perception is, if they have any education at all, they're qualified to be a journalist."
Herdy's travels have their origin in an August 2007 visit to CU by a Pakistani delegation that included a consultant named Farook Khan. These visitors arrived on campus the same day she began her new job at the university. "They stopped at CU to talk to the dean of the journalism school [Paul Voakes] and other CU administrators about possibly having an academic relationship," she recalls. "And while they were there, they asked about different journalism courses -- and two they liked were ones I'd written, about journalism in trauma and the art of the interview."
In the end, the faculty voted against formally partnering with Pakistan, with all of those who voted other than Herdy deciding that the country was too unstable to move forward at that time. However, she kept in touch with Khan via e-mail, and after sending him a note expressing her sympathies in respect to the negative verdict, she remembers, "I got a response saying, 'Would you be interested in coming out and doing workshops with us?' And I immediately responded, 'Absolutely.'"
Following through on this pledge proved difficult. Herdy contacted a number of fellow journalists to inquire if they, too, would be willing to travel to Pakistan on such a mission, and several answered in the affirmative, with Jim Moscou, who was then writing for Newsweek, being among the most enthusiastic and committed. But plans were put on hold repeatedly due to developments in Pakistan. In November, embattled Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf declared martial law. The following month, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Then, in January, elections were held; Herdy had originally agreed to observe the balloting, but decided against it because she felt doing so might conflict with her commitment in regard to the workshops. And several more months went by as Musharraf tried to hang onto at least some of his power amid a period of governmental transition. He finally resigned as Pakistan's president in August.
With Musharraf finally gone, Herdy scheduled a trip to Pakistan in September; she'd decided to travel there on her own first, in order to figure out logistics for future workshops. Then, at the last minute, she postponed her flight because she'd land during Ramadan, a holiday that would have made it more difficult for some journalists to meet with her. Lucky thing, since she had planned to stay at a Marriott hotel in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad -- and on one of the nights she would have been there, the building was bombed. Not that Herdy makes a big deal out of this near miss. "Everyone in Pakistan has stories like that," she says.
At this point, many people in Herdy's place would have canceled the visit altogether. Indeed, representatives at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan tried to dissuade her -- but when she persisted, they suggested that she contact Constance Jones, an attache who happened to be in Colorado Springs at the time. Jones and Herdy subsequently met and hit it off -- so much so that Jones invited her to stay at her home during her time in Pakistan.
With housing secure, Herdy flew to Pakistan earlier this month, surprising even the people who met her at the airport. The commute from there to Jones's place made it clear how different the environment was from the one she knows in Colorado. "The airport is on the border of Islamabad," she says, "and as you drive there, you encounter the first of many police barricades. They stop each vehicle, search the trunk and wave you on." As for Jones's abode, "I'm not allowed to say where she lives. But it's a well-protected area -- and almost everyone who has a home in that area has their own guard. There are little guard huts in front of every house, and every house has tall concrete walls with barbed wire on top and gates to the driveway. If you're arriving somewhere, you pull up to the driveway and honk, and the guard lets you in."
Over the course of the next seveal days, Herdy met with dozens of Pakistani journalists in both the print and broadcasting media, plus assorted government officials and even American correspondents assigned to the country -- and she feels she learned just as much, if not more, than the folks with whom she spoke. For one thing, she came away with a new understanding for the cultural challenges that face reporters. "A male reporter cannot approach any female he doesn't know and talk to her in Pakistan," she says, by way of example. "So if a male reporter wants to interview a woman who's on the scene of a story, he has to first approach a male she's with and ask his permission." And if she's alone? "He can't talk to her at all," Herdy says.
There's also the matter of whether such a reporter would know what to ask. Herdy met with a representative of Express TV, a 24-hour news channel whose programming is delivered in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. Express TV is looking to start a 24-hour channel in English early in 2009, and of the 70 percent of the workforce hired thus far, "not one of them have any type of journalism background," she reports. "I asked, 'How are you going to train them?' And he said, 'We'll embed them with the Urdu journalists for a couple of months and turn them loose.'"
Problem is, the Urdu journalists don't have any formal training as reporters or editors, either, aside from the on-the-job kind. "I met with the head of the journalism union there, and he told me, 'I have a mass communication degree that did me no good whatsoever,'" Herdy says. As such, Pakistani journalists have been given precious little direction when it comes to tackling what Herdy considers to be extremely important issues -- "questions like, 'What makes something newsworthy? What are your responsibilities as a journalist? What are the ethical boundaries? Should you give your opinions?' And news is very opinionated there. People on TV news will just wax on and on about what they think."
Seeing this anarchic atmosphere firsthand made Herdy realize how desperately Pakistani media members need at least an introductory grounding in journalism basics, and she's determined to help give it to them. She identified numerous locations where she'd like to stage workshops, with the idea of returning in January either on her own or with other journalists like Moscou to begin teaching in earnest. And she's confident her pupils will be receptive.
"They kept saying to me, 'We need help over here. We need change,'" Herdy notes. "And if we can start a small ripple effect, it'll be worth it." -- Michael Roberts
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.