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The Austrian Perspective

The Austrian Perspective
An Austrian journalist spends three weeks working in WFUV"s newsroom.

Austria is quite easily comparable to New York City. For one quite simple reason. It’s the same size in population. In New York City there are 8.2 million citizens, in Austria it would be 8.5 million. The difference is: In Austria there are 101 residents per square kilometer. In New York City there are about 10,500 residents on the same area.

When you arrive in the United States of America for the first time ever, you imagine to know things. You have seen movies and plenty of TV-series, you have read books, talked to people who have already been there. But then you arrive and you’re still surprised and/or overwhelmed by cultural differences and daily circumstances. But I have to mention that my perception of New York City was much closer to reality than those of New Yorkers, who imagine Austria like a place of The Sound of Music. Because: No, we do not hop around happily and singing in Dirndl and Lederhose all day.

However, because I’m here as a part of a journalist exchange program, I figured the first thing I should do is find out about differences in journalism.  It was the simple differences that I noticed first. Such as bathroom and restroom things. Standards in the U.S. in that matter are comparable to Southern Europe. It’s not that things (like showers, toilets, flagging or sinks) were better in Austria – it’s just that obviously the preferences are different. We obviously do set higher value on colors, modernity and space.

On the other hand U.S. restrooms turned out to be more hygienic. From the first day on I was fascinated by some toilets that flush automatically. A sensor on a toilet – that is something completely new to an – one could say – old-fashioned European girl.

How people greet each other also caught my attention.  U.S.-Americans are so friendly and obliging! I had to learn in these first days how to react to questions like “How are you doing?” and use them myself. I already knew that a five minute answer is not expected. But “How are you doing?” is a phrase that is not used that often where I come from. Of course we are polite and welcome strangers as well as we may greet persons on the streets. But being welcomed in a store or taxicab by being asked “How are you today?” – that would be new.

But let’s return to professional differences – more precisely: differences in journalism.

As a radio-journalist and news-presenter I am used to the fact, that objectivity is the goal. I want to tell people about what’s happening in the world and let them form their opinion and point of view.  But nonetheless I did not expect, that there are two perspectives of journalism in America.  I learned one thing while visiting places like The Washington Post, The New York Times and NPR. Journalists in the US are not entitled to an opinion. There is a strict separation – not only in a newspaper or a radio-show, but also within the offices. There are journalists telling about what’s happening. And there are journalists telling what they are thinking of what’s happening.  Don’t get me wrong. I would never speak about my personal opinion on-air. But I did not know how important it was to cover all perspectives within just one story in the States, even in a one-minute radio report.

One day on my way to work I saw an ad at a bus stop. It said: I want to be informed by the news, not influenced. I guess this is what it’s all about. That policy seems to be more important in the USA. Again: Media in Austria don’t want to influence per se, not even tabloid media. But, editors cooperate and don’t divide the departments of “news” and “opinion” that much.

Work aside, as I set out to conquer New York, I realized the most important part of the body here are your feet. Of course I am using public transport. But the longer I stay in the city, the more I use my feet to get around. Second rule would be: never block other pedestrians. Don't stop too abruptly on the sidewalk. Don’t be an obstacle on the subway platform. Don’t walk too slowly. Don’t behave like a tourist. But I have to admit: I like that aspect. It gets the city going, especially in crowded Times Square.

Another difficulty for me – especially in New York City – is tipping. Of course we tip in Austria, but there are no rules, that more or less dictate the behavior in tipping. I have to admit I am still calculating  during a cab ride just how much I should tip,  and  thinking about whether to tip or not when having lunch at Pret A Manger.

Also, there is a different understanding of privacy. And here’s an example: I went to work by train this morning, having a ride on Metro North Railroad, sitting in a six-seat-compartment. Another guy came by and sat down right beside me, ignoring the farther remaining free seats. In Austria this man would have chosen the farthest free seat within the compartment, staying as far away from me as possible.

Speaking of space I must mention sizes in the US. Everything is so huge here! I am not speaking of buildings, I knew that they were huge in NYC. But I tried to buy a small can of salt on my first day. I couldn’t. I tried to find a small glass of pasta sauce. I couldn’t. I tried to buy a small pack of a special sort of milk. The smallest I could find was half a gallon. Did you know we sell milk in Austria at a size of less than 0.15 gallons?

Finally, I want to put politics on the record. There were national elections last weekend in Austria, not that anybody in the world cares about that (and even I say that!). For Austrian settings it was some kind of dirty campaigning this time. Parties accused other parties of everything under the sun and didn’t focus on their own ideas. But watching TV in New York City I realized the US-style of dirty campaigning. I watched a TV-spot (you can see it below) dragging a politician in the mud.  I couldn’t even determine who made the spot. It was not even mentioned. That’s a style of election campaigning that disagrees to the kindness here, in the USA, in New York City.  At least from the Austrian perspective.