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Albanian-American Media Expert - 2003-05-08

English Feature #7-37431 Broadcast May 12, 2003

Today’s guest on New American Voices is an Albanian-American who oversees journalism-teaching programs in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

Growing up in Tirana in the bleak days of communist dictator Enver Hoxha’s closed society in the 1970s and 80s, Vjollca Shtylla was surrounded by virulent anti-American propaganda. Yet she and her friends had a different view of the United States.

“The truth is that, yes, the communist government in Albania painted a very, very black picture of the United States. But that’s not what most people really thought of it. So I didn’t have that picture in my mind as I grew up. Yes it was a forbidden country, and it was a country that I really wanted to go to one day. And it was in the eyes of many Albanians at that time, and today, too, it was like a beacon of freedom in the world, although it was a country we could never get to.”

Vjollca Shtylla finally did get to the United States in 1993. Before that she spent a number of years in China, where her father served as Albania’s Ambassador, and where she studied English and Chinese at Beijing University. When she returned home to Albania, her knowledge of languages led to a job as translator, then editor, then assistant director at a publishing house in Tirana. While there, she applied for and received the prestigious Hubert Humphrey Fellowship to study mass communications at Boston University. She says that having previously visited Western Europe, she thought she knew what the United States would be like – that is to say, very similar to Europe.

“And it was not. The first thing I felt was the size. Everything is larger. And the second was that I immediately felt at home here, and I don’t know whether that’s because of me or who I am, or if this country gives that to a lot of people, which I hear it does. I never felt a foreigner here from the first day I arrived in this country.”

Ms Shtylla brought her two young daughters with her to Boston. She says her children had no difficulty adapting to the new country, either. She cites the example of her younger daughter, then six years old, who was placed in a racially mixed public school in Boston.

“And she had been in a very homogenous society in Albania, there’s not many ethnicities. She came back from the first day at school and she said, ‘Mom, lots of kids in my class have been to the beach so long this summer, they’ve got such a tan!’ (laughs). And she felt included. So there were these little things from the beginning where I felt a part of this country.”

When the University Fellowship ended, Ms Shtylla and her family returned to Tirana, where she became the regional director for a Swiss-based cultural and educational foundation. Two years later she won a so-called “green card” in the diversity visa lottery, and the family immigrated to the United States for good. Although she feels at home here and has already become a U.S. citizen, Ms Shtylla says she tries to keep her Albanian connection alive for herself and her daughters.

“We speak only Albanian at home. My daughters speak perfect English, but they speak perfect Albanian, too, and that’s one main way how to connect with the country. We do have Albanian friends who live in the area or in other cities, and we have gone back several times on vacation.”

Professionally, as a program director for the International Center for Journalists, Vjollca Shtylla administers training programs for journalists in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. The Center tailors its training to the particular needs of each region. This year, for instance, it will conduct a series of workshops throughout Southeastern Europe aimed at improving journalists’ coverage of the issue of trafficking in women and children. In Africa it provides such courses as AIDS reporting and financial management of small radio stations. But Ms Shtylla says the principles of good journalism that the Center teaches are the same, no matter where.

“I believe that they are true for all countries of the world, regardless of political system, economic development, or any of those. And these are reporting the reality as is, telling a story as is, and getting information from as many sources as you can, not just one source. Do not report based on hearsay, and keep your biases out of your reporting.”

Although these principles are the foundation of American journalism, Ms Shtylla feels that not all American journalists follow them as they should.

“In my view, there are only a few American media outlets that are really upholding those standards that we’re trying to teach. There is a tendency I think, in this country, to glamorize everything, and to grab people’s attention not by what is real news, but what is glamour, in a way – sensationalism.”

Vjollca Shtylla says she doesn’t know whether the reasons for this trend are commercialism, or profit-making, or centralization, that is big corporations buying up smaller media outlets. But while pointing to what she sees as problems in the American media, she says that a unique aspect of America is that such problems can be openly discussed. “The fact that we can discuss them means we can address them”, she adds, “and that leads to change.”