This winter, I had my 15 minutes of fame on a popular Georgian TV show. Specifically, my Georgian teacher from grad school had her 40-ish minutes of fame, and I was a supporting character. She was being profiled for a human interest piece on her work educating foreigners about Georgian language and culture, and since I was also in Georgia, they wanted to speak with me about what I had learned, as well as to film me teaching, showing how my teacher had inspired me to do good for Georgia. I think the piece turned out very well in the end; they made my teacher and my graduate program look great (I hope the show got my grad program some good press), and it was a good half-hour of TV programming. My TV appearance also eased my path with regards to integrating into my community–my 1st grade class got to be on national TV, for which their families were very grateful. My school was delighted at the PR opportunity, in particular the chance to show that even though our school is poor we have a fantastic English lab with a small library and a computer. My host family was able to see my university and “meet” the people I’d worked with. (My history professor (Hi, Professor B!), was a big hit; my host grandfather said “He is a good man”). My Georgian teacher, now a TV star, was seen as a hero in my community, and whenever I wanted to visit her in Tbilisi I had no problems leaving town whenever I wanted.
The final product of the program looked fantastic–my students were adorable (and looked like they always paid attention and were active participants in class). The bulk of my interviews were done in English, which the TV staff translated (accurately, as far as I remember and understand the Georgian), though I did do a small piece of the interview in Georgian which was featured in the show. They also taped me having a little chat in Georgian with my teacher and her kids. The reporters and camera people were very friendly and nice, and I was super-impressed by the cameraman’s interaction with my first graders. He was very kind and polite to them, while also getting them to do exactly what he wanted–that’s no easy task! My only complaint about the final product was that I really wish they’d let me brush my hair before they started filming me.
Because I reaped so many benefits from this TV program, I’m not going to tell you the details of which program or channel, because while I was happy with the outcome, I have some criticisms of the journalistic process. Georgia is, of course, a post-Soviet country, and the media sector is still in transition. Freedom House rates the Georgian media as “partly free” in 2012…far better than in many other parts of the Former Soviet sphere of influence. (You can see all their data here.) In my opinion, a large part of the problem stems not just from the legal environment but from the fact that there isn’t a culture of investigative journalism or rigorous reporting. My impression is that the reporters are told information by their sources, and then the run it (this is an issue that foreign aid groups and NGOs are aware of, and are working to change through journalistic exchanges and further education). There is also not always a good understanding of the processes necessary to film in certain places, or talk to certain people. The style of television and what is popular to watch is also different here in the States (as I’ve posted about before) which I’m sure contributes to the different culture surrounding TV journalism. I should note here that my experience with the media back home in America is also limited–I’m not a journalist by training, and all of my contact with the American media has been through local TV stations or newspapers and human interest pieces, almost all while I was in high school. What most surprised me about my experience being interviewed for the show was that it was I and not the journalists who was ultimately responsible for getting the permissions necessary for them to film me. Since they wanted to film me teaching, that required permission from the school principal, the local education authority, and the class (as well as permission from my employer to talk to me)–all of which I had to make sure they had. At one point in the interview, I was asked to change my answer, because I didn’t give them the answer they were expecting. Apparently, I interpreted the question differently than they had intended it, so when they rephrased the question I did have a different answer, but I still didn’t say what they wanted me to say. When they filmed me teaching, the crew had a very specific idea of what they wanted to see in the classroom (me giving commands in Georgian and encouraging the students to translate), which unfortunately does not correlate with the way I teach. So all of the scenes of me teaching are dramatized, rather than documentary. It also turns out that I’m not cut out to be a TV actress, because it took me at least 5 takes to open the door properly. Overall I felt that the portrayal was accurate, but I was worried by the way in which the journalists were driven by their preconceptions of how the program should look, rather than finding the facts and letting them drive the story.