Teaching the Science of Journalism in China

By Mott, Glenn | Nieman Reports, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Science of Journalism in China


Mott, Glenn, Nieman Reports


China is a land of stupefying contradictions. One of the best metaphors I know describes it as a Mandarin duck, appearing to float calmly on the surface of the water while its feet are moving as fast as they can underneath. It is a place without the rule of law, where placing limits on free expression becomes the highest form of democracy--the greatest harmony for the greater good--and where authoritarian capitalism is axiomatic, not oxymoronic, and terms like innovation and entrepreneurial are redefined within a system of Confucian hierarchy and state control.

Human rights, democracy and journalism are three of the most transitive terms in the English language when it comes to our thinking about China; we think we understand them until we see that the Communist Party enshrined all of these in its Constitution.

The most voracious consumer of news media in China has always been the state itself, which needs reliable information in order to legislate. Given the Communist Party's heavy investment in global enterprises, the value of independently verifiable financial news is just as prized in China as it is by investors anywhere else to assess risk and for markets to function properly. And so the party has expanded the teaching of journalism at Chinese universities (the country now has some 800 journalism-oriented programs) to produce financial journalists capable of more transparent reporting than their predecessors.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As an American lecturing in journalism at one of China's top universities for leadership candidates in the Communist Party, a political apparatus known for its suppression of information and dissenting opinions, my experiences with students there taught me much about the role journalism and journalists are expected to play.

Foreign Students of Journalism in China

Business journalism wears a cloak of protection in China; it is a somewhat safer moniker on campuses than journalism unmodified. My graduate students at Tsinghua University were recruited from the Global Business Journalism (GBJ) program that had been established the year before with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in conjunction with the International Center for Journalists. As a Fulbright lecturer, independent of the department as a whole, I taught two graduate seminars of rather dubious value to the occupational mandates of the Communist Party committees at the university: opinion and commentary, and narrative journalism. During our time together, my students would come to see how writers such as Michael Lewis, Joan Didion, or, reaching further back, James Agee, could take their financial reporting a step beyond the Bloomberg handbook to a level never contemplated by the ministry of information.

The students I taught came from a diverse group of countries--Australia to Zambia. About half of the nearly 50 students in the program were Chinese nationals, all but four of them female. Just over half of the international students were men; a few had prior experience as journalists, and at least two were working journalists reporting from China.

Foreigners in Beijing would often ask me a variation on the question "What on earth are international students doing studying journalism in China?" It was a question I arrived with and one I hoped my experiences would help me answer. Over the course of the year, I asked my students: "Tell me why are you studying journalism in China?" As the year wore on I gave up on the idea that there was a single satisfactory answer. Instead, I felt that all we could do was to keep asking ourselves this question, as I would do often since as a Fulbright scholar I was studying the Chinese way of journalism as much as anyone. And when I was with my Chinese students, I was constantly aware that the journalism they could practice was antithetical to the principles I was teaching, or so I believed until I learned to trust the scientific nature of these principles. …

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