“What is your profession?”
“Journalist” I answered.
The man looked down and shook his head. He didn’t even try to hide his disgust. I noticed his upper lip curl, as if a foul taste had entered his mouth. He shrugged and changed the subject.
“What the hell was that?” I thought angrily. I was slightly offended. After all, I had no idea who this guy even was. Minutes earlier, he had seen us on the street and enthusiastically offered to help us find a hotel. Now, apparently, he was less of a fan.
It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten such a reaction.
One of the commonalities I’ve noticed between Turkey and the United States is the importance of profession. Turks work long hours, and hard. Like Americans, asking about one’s job is among the first things they do when getting to know someone. It’s not surprising that specific vocations carry a great deal of respect – Doctors, Lawyers, Accountants. I’ve met a couple of people who made a special point of telling us about family members with successful medical practices in big cities such as Istanbul or Ankara.
But when it comes to the prestigious careers in Turkey, journalism is generally not one of them.
“It is not seen as a good job” Erhan Turan explained to me.
A writer for a news agency in the Black Sea city of Sinop, Erhan and his 85 year old father had seen us walking along the boardwalk and invited us to an afternoon tea. Through struggled English, we talked about the low salaries of journalists, and some of the stories he’d written about environmental protests that he felt were unfairly discarded by his editor.
Certainly, the low salaries add an important component to journalism’s lack of prestige. But the editor comment peaked my interest. What are editors putting in the papers here?
After looking at a selection of newspapers and television programs, I could see another reason why journalism might get a bad rap here in Turkey.
Many of the newspapers on the stands look closer to tabloids than legitimate news rags. The three major national newspapers — Hurriyet, Posta, and Zaman — frequently feature pictures of scantily clad women cropped in seductive poses around the paper titles. The articles that follow are typically short, and the pictures huge – with an 3D like quality in the way they are colored and formatted around the text. It’s actually kind of a neat visual experience, but the photoshopped images with their superimposed, pop-out titles make it a bit difficult to take some of the stories seriously. For instance, in Hurriyet, I saw one article about massacres in Syria with a photo of a smiling, attractive female journalist — the author apparently — photoshopped over an image of dead bodies lined up on the side of a road.
Glancing through the nation’s second largest newspaper, Posta, I saw some hard-hitting journalism about Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie that made the second page – before the sections on finance, the economy, and politics. Shortly following, right before the sports section, were half-page advertisements for sexual enhancements. Perhaps this is why I’ve seen patrons at corner markets buy three or four newspapers at a time – so that between all of them, they can get enough substance.
In no way am I suggesting that good reporting doesnt exist in Turkey, or that things are comparatively perfect in the United States – far from it. But I can see how the tabloid formula could cause people like our street friend to scorn reporters.
Another reason for media softness in Turkey revolves around freedom of press issues. US watchdog Freedom House ranks Turkey at 117th among 197 countries in measures of media freedom. Paris based Reporters without Borders puts Turkey even lower, at 148. Just this past year, there have been multiple instances of journalists being jailed – including Nedim Sener, who has been writing about corruption in the country for nearly two decades, and Ahmet Sik, who wrote about religious fundamentalism in Turkey’s security forces. Many of these cases are prosecuted upon Turkey’s controversial penal code 301, which makes it “illegal to insult ‘turkishness.’” This of course, includes the government.
With reporters hesitant to criticize the powers that be, and editors unwilling to stick their neck out for controversial stories, it makes sense that many papers elect to stick to safer waters. Jennifer Anniston is usually a good bet. It just doesn’t make for very respectable writing.
And so what? During my time in Turkey, such things may occasionally lead me to be scoffed at for saying I’m a journalist.
I’ll gladly take it every time. If anything, it makes me even more motivated to learn the trade and produce quality content.