Joanna Kakissis, foreign NPR correspondent for Greece and Cyprus in Athens talks to GreekTV about her experience with crisis reporting and about the media landscape in Greece. Joanna has written for TIME, The New York Times, The Caravan and Financial Times Magazine. She previously worked as a staff writer at The News & Observer.
Q. What was it like coming back to Greece in 2010 after being away for two years on a fellowship?
A. When I moved to Athens in mid-2004 from my newspaper in North Carolina, l had a lot of work with the Olympics. By 2005, there was less interest in Greece because the stories had been what they had been for the past 20 years. The stories after the Olympics in Greece were never serious and when I returned in 2010, I was stunned at the level of interest in the country and how much demand there was for more serious and multifaceted coverage—not just about archaeology or Zorba the Greek. At that time, the crisis was in its very early stages.
Between 2010 and 2012 there was a lot of news—a lot of reaction stories about what went wrong, how people were suffering, and who was to blame. As reporters, we had to answer those questions and figure out how to make those stories honest. It was a lesson in how to make economics understandable and easy to follow, and how to tell good stories—not just these dry stories about how markets react.
Q. How has the media landscape changed in Greece since 2010?
A. In the past four or five years, many people have become outright vocal about their distrust for mainstream media. They have become aware that many major news organizations are not giving them the real story and they have turned to other sources. In response, there were several independent projects that opened up, including The Press Project.
Nikolas Leontopoulos had been working for Eleftherotypia before the crisis and was a critic for what he saw as propaganda in the media. Nikolas used his skills as an investigative reporter and brought us The Press Project, which is now also an English site that he runs along with two other people.
One friend of mine, Theodora Oikonomides is an executive producer of “Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-Hunt,” a documentary film about the women who had been arrested in the sweep in the center of Athens and subjected to forced HIV testing. Theodora is a great example of what happened to the media landscape and of indie media making a mark. She is a brilliant activist who previously worked for international aid organizations. She came to Greece, became enraged by what she was seeing around her— mostly of what she saw as pro-Troika propaganda in the media— and began doing fabulous work, hosting her own English-language show for Radio Bubble, a short-lived community radio. These efforts never would have happened if it hadn’t been for the crisis and the pushback against mainstream media.
Q. In your opinion, how was the crisis experienced as an event of the media?
A. There were big structural problems in Greece with the way the bailout was handled and with what the Greek people were told. Another problem was with the two ways the crisis story was framed.
“Journalists travel to countries when something bad is happening— but they also have to find ways to do stories that illuminate the culture or add that dimension in reports about crises.”
The first part of the story was about the protests in Syntagma. “Greece on fire” was the first thing shown on the news every day and these images dominated news for the first year and a half. In reality, these visuals were captured within a small radius around Syntagma.
In the second year, the stories victimized the Greek people. Reporters searched for the worst stories to represent what was happening in the country. Some of these stories were legitimate— people were having a hard time, losing their homes, and there were children who were not being fed properly— but they were being framed in a tabloid way. Casting an entire country either as a villain or as a victim is not good journalism. It is not nuanced journalism. It’s click-bait.
Q. Especially at the start of the crisis, journalists had a lot of power to shape public opinion about the events in Greece. To what extent did you feel a sense of responsibility to represent the country during this time?
A. I lived here and I didn’t see things the way parachute journalists saw them. With Marcus Walker from The Wall Street Journal as an exception, nearly all of the parachute journalists that came to Greece during the crisis did the stories that I either felt were incomplete, out of context or tabloid. Like other local correspondents in Athens at the time, my concern was to represent the story fairly and to give a more textured or representative idea of what it was like to live here.
One of my editor’s favorite stories is a postcard I did from Folegandros, a tiny island that managed to keep its little economy going by doing summer weddings. I did an audio postcard of a wedding between a Greek opera singer and an Italian ballet dancer. This was a crisis story in a way, but it also showed something joyful about Greece.
Journalists travel to countries when something bad is happening— but they also have to find ways to do stories that illuminate the culture or add that dimension in reports about crises.
Q. How much did depictions of Greece in the international media affect the way people in the country were thinking about the crisis on a day-to-day basis? And how will this change now that crisis reporting is dissipating?
A. I had a personal experience with my former editor at The News and Observer. On a trip to the US, he asked me while laughing, “What is it about you Greeks? Aren’t you on vacation most of the year?” I was angry because, of course, this is a stereotype. I have heard similar experiences anecdotally from others. It is going to take time for Greece to internationally get away from these embedded stereotypes of it being corrupt or it being prone to riot at the drop of a hat. Identity is so important. It is not nice when the only thing people associate with your country is the crisis. That is going to fade away in a few years, and I hope the world will begin to see Greece for what it is. And what it is, is a complicated place stuck between its ancient past and its modern identity and everything in between.
“Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch-Hunt”: http://ruins-documentary.com/en/
Watch the trailer here:
The Press Project: http://www.thepressproject.gr
“Summer Weddings Buoy Economy of Small Greek Island,” by Joanna Kakissis: http://www.npr.org/2012/08/05/158156539/summer-weddings-buoy-economy-of-small-greek-island