The SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom organized a three-day training workshop in Jordan for Palestinian journalists, from September 28-30, 2012. The goal of the workshop was to train Palestinian journalists from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the 1948 Territories, on creative feature story writing. Ultimately, SKeyes aims to launch an independent English-language news website, featuring news and analysis from Palestine to create an alternative to the current news sources, which have strong political biases. Journalists Matt Nash, Alexander Rowell, and Shane Farrell designed and delivered the training program.
Director of Samir Kassir Foundation Ayman Mhanna opened the day by welcoming everyone and thanking them for participating in the training workshop. He explained that the workshop is the first of a series of training sessions aiming at launching a Palestinian news website written by Palestinian journalists, reflecting Palestinian news to western audiences.
Matt Nash opened the first panel by talking about the ‘dos and don’ts’ when writing a feature story. He stressed the importance of accurate sourcing, objectivity, thorough research, and the accuracy of the information, noting that journalists’ credibility is the only thing that is important; if they lose that, they lose their readers.
Matt stressed the importance of going “beyond the headlines” and providing depth to feature articles. He introduced the technique of color writing by, for instance, using a human face to highlight a larger issue, using colorful imagery to describe scenes rather than drab explanation, as well as emphasizing the importance of not overdoing tragedy or embellishing. He also pointed out the importance of investigating the sources and claims and getting to the heart of the debate, using examples from his own career to illustrate the matter. Matt provided tips to help journalists succeed when writing a feature article such as saving hard questions till the end and using editors as a fallback excuse in order not to offend interviewees for, as an example, not using their quotes. However he stressed that if the journalist him or herself is at fault, he or she should admit their error and apologize. His final tip was for journalists to make sure they are offering something new to the conversation and avoid regurgitating what has already been written.
During the first day, participants read four feature articles from different sources tackling the same subject. Then they critiqued the articles pointing out where they felt the writers went wrong and what they should have avoided. Later on, as the first writing exercise of the workshop, participants were asked to use sources to write their own feature articles on the same subject.
Day two began with participants being divided into groups of three, with each group assigned to a trainer. In those groups, participants practiced peer-critiquing the first writing exercise, pointing out, among other things, whether the writer fell for the dos and don’ts of feature writing discussed on day one.
Then group members shifted to another trainer and each group studied a specific form of feature writing in three parallel workshops: event coverage (or ‘color pieces’) with Shane Farrell, profile articles with Matt Nash, and policy articles with Alexander Rowell.
In each session, participants were provided with information, sources, pictures and/or articles to study. They then wrote short articles about each situation and had them analyzed, critiqued, and edited by the trainers and other group members. Trainers also helped correct grammar mistakes and writing style, and suggested terminology more suitable to the relevant articles.
The final activity on the second day was a press conference simulation carried out by the instructors. An incident was made up and a mock press conference was held during which participants could interview the moderator and two people with different opinions on the incident. Participants were asked to compose a feature article using material gathered by participants during 15 minutes of questioning.
After a third and last round of parallel workshops on color pieces, profile, and policy articles, participants focused on their second writing exercise, a feature article based on the previous day’s press conference simulation. Participants, together with the trainers, critiqued and corrected each other’s articles and offered suggestions for inclusion and omission. They also got advice from the trainers and their colleagues on what the real story from the conference was. The trainers, moreover, pointed out the importance of the title in such articles and that it should not be misleading. The structure of the title should be objective and convey the message and in the same time catch the eye of the reader.
The third and last day culminated with participants sharing their opinion and final thoughts about the workshop.
E.N., a participant from the 1948 Territories said, “I don’t usually use English on daily basis. Here I had the opportunity to read, write, and practice my English. I was afraid at the beginning, but I discovered that I can do it and I am very glad. I practiced profile, descriptive and analysis style of writing which I don’t usually do and this was challenging. I enjoyed participating and I should work more to achieve progress.”
“I really enjoyed it. The trainers were nice and made this experience really fun. It was inspirational because I usually work by myself, but it is good to work with other people. I never worked under pressure and you made me do that. It was a challenge and because English is my native language I felt that I had to do a good job and produce better work, and I did it,” said N.S. (1948 Territories).
S.A., a journalist from Gaza, pointed out that this experience was unique to him when he said, “I do my job in Arabic, and here I had to write in English. In this workshop we spoke English and practiced the language. We worked in groups and this helped me discover what’s right and what’s wrong in my style of writing. I also learned how to accept criticism of my work and how to discuss and critique other people’s work. I was introduced to the notion of team work in an energetic workshop.”
“In the last two years I never wrote English in my work as a journalist, I only used it in the academic form. This workshop was an opportunity to refresh my knowledge and add to it from the experience of western journalists working in Lebanon. I want to highlight this point because it is not easy to adopt the western style of journalism in the Middle East, but the trainers write feature stories in a different way and I could see the need for that in future Middle Eastern journalism,” added A.A. (West Bank)
F.A. (Gaza) told SKeyes, “I finally got the opportunity to have my work evaluated and criticized. I write in English everyday but my work is never discussed or edited; this critique and editing process was very useful. I also learned from my colleagues’ work, mistakes, and experience. For instance I understood the difference between the words ‘kill’ and ‘murder’. Writing a 500 word article in one hour was very challenging, but being able to do it boosted my self confidence.”
M.H. (West Bank) said, “I am not very experienced in journalism; this is only my third year as a journalist, I have never received professional training in English. All my training workshops were in Arabic. I learned a new style of writing; I never had to look at a picture and write about it before. I also benefited from the experience of my colleagues and their advice to improve.”
“The aim of the workshop is very important, to work on an English-language website about Palestine. I like the selection of the colleagues from different regions of Palestine; we got the chance to talk inside and outside of the workshop. The trainers are experienced western journalists working in the Middle East. I only use English for academic purposes; I have never used it in journalism, so this was a great experience and I managed to write a lot in a short time”, said J.Q. (West Bank).
Naela Khalil (SKeyes West Bank correspondent) said, “It was refreshing, I never wrote in English. The material was well prepared, which shows that the trainers are professionals and know exactly what they are doing. The technique of dividing us into groups and make us sit with different trainers helped us learn from each one of them. Writing profile and feature articles is limited in Palestine, especially in news.”
“I learned profile style writing which was new to me, I also learned how to criticize myself and reading pieces written by my colleagues gave me more skills. I also learned that in covering a story there is no right or wrong because the angle of the story is flexible,” concluded S.A.S. (Gaza).
* This event was made possible thanks to the generous support of the European Union and the Foundation for the Future.