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By Erin Phelan

MADANG, Papua New Guinea (March 27, 2000 - PINA Nius Online)---"Mr. Weber, before you came what was your impression of our crime rate in PNG?" Avia Tamate asks her lecturer during a media ethics class at Divine Word University in Papua New Guinea.

Weber, head of the university's communication arts program, chooses his response carefully. "I thought that PNG was a dangerous place."

"And when you got here, did you think the media portrayed that accurately?" Tamate presses, a refreshing tete-a-tete between journalism student and teacher.

The discussion with her fellow students turns to whether the media sensationalize violence, what responsibility reporters burden, whether violence and crime has been glorified by the media in Papua New Guinea. It's just another day of media issues and practice at Divine Word University.

DWU, as it is known in Papua New Guinea and the region, has been training journalists since 1979, with its first graduate in 1982. The program, at Madang on the north coast, has gone through considerable changes along the way -- in leadership, curriculum and structure. It now offers both a two-year diploma and a four-year degree in journalism. The former provides basic skills for the newsroom, while the latter polishes those skills and provides more critical thought and analysis.

Joe Weber took over the helm 18 months ago with one goal in mind: stick with the basics. "Students come in not knowing much, but by the time they leave they can identify what makes a news story, they have the skills to write it and are ready to go to work," says Weber. "PNG has come a long way in a short period of time, and the media are still developing. But journalism hasn't changed much. It is still about story telling."

A group of 21 students have just begun an opportunity to exercise those skills and tell tales. They are on a reporting field trip to Aitape, site of the destructive tsunami that crashed the shores in 1998, killing over 3,000 Papua New Guineans. "It is the most ambitious field trip we've done," says Weber. The students are going to the region as the two-year rehabilitation program, administered by the government, comes to an end. Last year allegations were made that funds targeted for the region never made it, or were misappropriated; culture, religion and traditional beliefs have been rumored to have played a strong role in the disaster.

Weber says: "Students will employ their skills to understand a complex situation. It is a difficult story to tell, with many strands. There is also the human story about what happened to a group of people. Students will produce features and relay it to others in the nation, the region and hopefully the world."

Weber, a former British journalist, has worked as a reporter, political specialist and sub editor in his career -- including a spell in Bermuda -- and came to Papua New Guinea as a volunteer with Voluntary Service Overseas.

"I thoroughly enjoy journalism," he explains. "You get to meet lots of interesting people, do interesting things and visit interesting places. I've gotten a lot out of journalism, and I wanted to put something back in."

He has put in time, energy and commitment. DWU's communication arts program grew by 64% this past year, as the Papua New Guinea Government recognized its effectiveness. It doubled the number of scholarships it gives for journalism studies at Divine Word.

DWU's graduates include the current editor of The National daily newspaper, and students' articles appear routinely in national papers. An article written by a group of female students on polygamy appeared in a British magazine last year, making impressive portfolios for some. The students produce a weekly newspaper with clean, tight writing and routinely cover conference and workshops in Madang, including a recent workshop on health and medical issues.

Weber has also spent hours finding funding for things such as computers for the news lab and equipment for a radio studio. Though initially a launch was aimed for World Press Freedom Day, delivery has been put off, holding the department back from its eagerly anticipated acquisition. "So much of the population relies on radio as a main source of information, that it is a key way of getting out to the people," he says, clearly frustrated by the delay. He expects the radio lab to start up next term in order to use the talents of a Canadian staff member, Bob Rhodes, a former radio journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Commission.

Weber has also used DWU's membership in the regional Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) so that Divine Word students can benefit from PINA programs. The UNESCO/PINA Pacific Journalism is about to help with a feature-writing program for the students.

While the communication arts program has been evolving, there are grumbles from some students. "It looks good on the outside but come inside to get a better look," says Ms Tamate, who will graduate with her degree at the end of this year. "They're still experimenting and we're the guinea pigs." Presently, roughly one-third of the faculty is from Papua New Guinea. Students also take classes such as history and politics in other departments. Ms. Tamate said that the mixed cultural bag of lecturers isn't ideal. "They have different styles of teaching and different ideologies -- the English way, the Canadian way, the Australian way, the New Zealand way. How they read our writing is different each time. We're Papua New Guinean; we want to write for Papua New Guinea people."

Weber acknowledges that they still have some way to come. "We're still growing," he said. They started out with two computers, and now have a computer lab of 20, along with a digital camera. Though initially emphasizing print journalism, the radio lab will change that and students take an intensive session with television journalists each year, and will possibly expand that area in the future. New media, and Internet, are others.

But these are seen as tools for journalists to use and Divine Word is not about to emphasize them at the expense of the basics of journalism. The focus remains on developing accomplished professional journalists who can work in a Pacific Islands environment.

Weber says: "DWU graduates have no difficulty getting jobs. The school has a good reputation not only because of the high caliber of students, but also the ethos we strive to place in our students. They have self-discipline, are motivated and have grounding in ethics: skills that are appreciated in the workplace."

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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