January 1st, 2010
Blogging from Belize
By Holly Edgell
On Sunday I depart for Belize, so my two weeks as writer for this blog will be coming to you from the tropics. It’s the only English-speaking nation on the Central American mainland and gained independence from Great Britain in 1981.
So why I am going to Belize? Well, I was born there and have lots of family and friends who still live there. I plan to do plenty of the cool stuff you can do in Belize, including visiting a Maya ruin I have not yet seen, hanging out on the beach, and — I hope — cave tubing. But, there will be some journalism involved as well. I will be meeting with two faculty members at theUniversity of the West Indies branch in Belize City, with an eye to returning later in the year to run a journalism seminar over two or three days.
Not only is Belize the definition of diversity in terms of its people, the local media scene is rich and varied and vigorous. For a country with a population of around 300,000 there are plenty of opinions and voices on air, online, and in print.
Based in Belize City are the following outlets:
The Belize Times
Channel 5 (News 5)
Channel 7 (Channel 7 News)
In the districts one can find:
San Pedro Daily
San Pedro Sun
And these are just the ones I know of! Radio is especially vibrant, with news, local culture, music, and talk shows that hit hard at politicians and business big wigs. Before independence there was just one station called “Radio Belize,” which was run by the government. It used to air everything from news and music, to death announcements (radio and TV stations still do this), and messages to and from lost or missing persons from concerned family and friends. Several Belizean newspapers today are associated with one political party or another. The Reporter (which my mother Zee Edgell founded in the 1960s) and Amandala tend to be the most independent, but bias is apparent at times.
In short, Belize’s media scene — like its democracy — is messy, imperfect, well-intentioned, and — as I’ve mentioned — diverse. There is no code of ethics for Belizean journalists to follow, at least none that I know of. Recently, both TV news outlets in Belize City showed the dead bodies of an adult and an infant on the air. When I commented about this on Facebook, I got more than a dozen comments from Belizeans — journalists and non-journalists — criticizing the stations. Information in the same story can diverge wildly from outlet to outlet, from name spellings and ages to the actual facts. Opinion and bias are rampant in Belizean newspaper stories; I’m talking about fact pieces here, not columns or editorials. Newspapers also print press releases verbatim. These are just a few of the issues that I’ve run across as I follow Belizean news coverage from here in the USA.
So, I ask myself: What, if anything, I can I contribute? I don’t think it’s up to me to “fix” or change Belizean journalism. So, I did a little survey last year about what journalists there might like to see in a journalism seminar or conference. Respondents variously characterized the Belize media as amatuer, intensely competitive, fair and balanced, and biased. They described journalists as self-taught, amateur, and dedicated to their profession. One-hundred percent of the respondents said they would like to see continuing education for journalists (there are no formal university journalism curricula). More than sixty percent wanted to see a strong professional organization for journalists and a code of ethics. The top subject areas that interested the journalists? Investigative techniques, interviewing techniques, media management, the laws of Belize on open records, and multimedia basics.
The thing that resonated with me the most was that more than ninety percent of the respondent said they love their profession and can’t see themselves doing anything else.
So, this seminar that I may do later this year could turn out to be part skills-based, part conversation about what Belizean journalism is all about and what it can be in the future.