Teaching Journalism, Finding a Home: A Big Challenge Was Balancing 'My Strong Sense of Ethical Practice with a Desire to Avoid Preaching an "American Way".'

By McLellan, Michele | Nieman Reports, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Teaching Journalism, Finding a Home: A Big Challenge Was Balancing 'My Strong Sense of Ethical Practice with a Desire to Avoid Preaching an "American Way".'


McLellan, Michele, Nieman Reports


I don't remember exactly when I started to feel at home in Cambodia. I didn't feel that way when I first arrived in Phnom Penh in October 2002 on a teaching assignment when I had to quickly find an apartment without knowing the language or the customs or even what a reasonable rent might be. I didn't feel at home at the end of stifling hot days when I was covered by a dusty veneer from the city's mostly unpaved streets. Nor when I tried to negotiate grocery prices at the local and very muddy outdoor market or to read newspaper accounts of meetings of top al-Qaeda operatives in Cambodia for years leading up to 9/11.

When I began to feel at home in my new surroundings was when I met my students--16 young Cambodian, Burmese, Laotian and Vietnamese journalists recruited by the New York-based Independent Journalism Foundation for a three-month journalism course. And when I figured out that the fleets of motos that crowd Phnom Penh's streets would simply flow around me if I ventured across a road and when I looked across the sunlit Mekong River from the deck at the home of a teaching colleague.

Along the way, I encountered plenty of bumps, including my great teaching challenge--to balance my strong sense of ethical practice with a desire to avoid preaching an 'American way" in such a different journalism environment.

I had taught journalism ethics around the United States and in my own newsroom at The Oregonian. I had been the newspaper's ombudsman and had written The Newspaper Credibility Handbook for the American Society of Newspaper Editors. I emerged from these experiences firmly believing that the ability of journalists to make well-considered decisions in the course of their work is central to what we do.

In Cambodia, often I felt whipsawed. My beliefs about journalism--and its ethical practice--held strong, but the context in which it was being practiced was a lot less clear. What could I tell an unemployed Cambodian journalist about bribe taking--a common practice among reporters--when he could barely feed his mother and ailing sister? How could I advise a Burmese reporter to be neutral in writing about the iron-fisted military regime in Myanmar? How could I expect that my inimical Vietnamese and Cambodian students would get along when their countries had been enemies for hundreds of years?

Often I responded to these dilemmas by deciding not to express my opinion. Instead, I tried to ask my students questions to help them recognize the implications of unethical practices, such as bribe taking and plagiarism. This approach didn't always work. Near the end of the term I had to dismiss three students for plagiarism after each had copied entire stories. One of them ended up getting a better job with a Phnom Pehn television station. (She did not list me among her references.) Another returned to his job in Laos, and I never learn what happened to the third. My sense is that none of them took away much from the class other than upset at their dismissals. But these were unpleasant, heart-wrenching moments for me, in part because the dismissals came even after I'd lowered my standards in the face of the circumstances that these students brought with them. I'd given each of them three strikes while, two years earlier in my own newsroom, I had recommended letting go a longtime employee for lifting a few phrases.

There were also many joys. I still smile when I think of the day when I took my Burmese student to a cramped Internet cafe to set up his first international Web connection and an e-mail account. I still get e-mails occasionally from him with stories he has written for an antiregime newspaper near the Burmese border in Thailand. And I took my feuding Vietnamese and Cambodian students to write about Wat Champa, a tiny village where Vietnamese and Cambodians live side-by-side. When they had to ask each other for translating help, they started to get along. There was gratification, too, when I saw my students, despite feeling very intimidated, interviewing officials of their governments at a regional conference on malaria. …

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