Dateline China

Journalism students sharpen reporting skills while navigating cultural differences

Oct. 19, 2009

She was photographed near the Great Wall as if she were a celebrity. She dined on chicken feet, dog and donkey meat for a story she was doing on exotic foods. She mastered the art of eating with chopsticks. And she frequently found herself haggling with shopkeepers along the streets of Xi’an.

That’s how 20-year-old journalism student Eva Romero spent a month this summer as she journeyed through China thanks to the university’s Maymester Abroad program Reporting China: A Foreign Correspondent’s Workshop. She not only learned how to find sources for her stories. She overcame language and technical difficulties in order to meet a deadline. She also learned how to interpret the cultural fabric of an emerging world superpower with the potential to influence life in the U.S. for years to come.

Tracy Dahlby with students from 2008 China trip
School of Journalism director Tracy Dahlby dines with a group of students on the 2008 China trip.

In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has gained on the U.S. as the world’s largest producer of manufactured goods. It has become home to the world’s largest army and has joined the World Trade Organization. China has become the world’s largest consumer of meat, grain, coal and steel and has an insatiable appetite for oil and energy supplies. Many predict it is on its way to becoming the world’s number one economy in the next two decades.

“China is undergoing significant changes with the potential to impact our global economy and environment in profound ways,” said Tracy Dahlby, director of the School of Journalism, and a former Tokyo bureau chief for Newsweek and the Washington Post. “The nature of our relationship with an economically strong–or weak–China will go far in determining what kind of world we live in decades from now.”

Who will interpret such big, important stories for us in our increasingly interconnected world? Dahlby hopes University of Texas at Austin journalism students will be part of that future reporting corps.

That is part of the reason he takes a group of graduate and undergraduate journalism and photojournalism students to China each summer under the auspices of the Maymester Abroad program. Reporting China: A Foreign Correspondent’s Workshop teaches students to tackle the day-to-day realities of international reporting, to establish themselves quickly on unfamiliar turf and to try to sort out China’s complex cultural, political and economic issues for people back home.

Reporting from the Field

“Whether it’s city hall, the local police department or state government, a reporter needs to get to know all the moving parts of his or her beat,” Dahlby said. “When covering a country, you need to know something about its economy, culture, government and its language–even if you don’t speak it fluently. Once you learn how one institution, government or country works, you can compare and contrast it to other similar entities you encounter and thereby create a meaningful frame of reference for yourself and your audience.”

Prior to arriving in China, students spend eight weeks attending a preparatory class Dahlby teaches during the spring semester to provide them with a framework for analyzing and understanding key issues facing China.

“We’re all prisoners of the perceptions we accumulate as a result of living in one place and consuming certain sets of media, and that’s hard to get away from,” Dahlby said. “We tend to have preconceived images of a place like China and when students are on the ground working there, they find out how different it really is. When that happens it can be a great educational moment–for a teacher as well as for students.”

Last summer, 15 students spent roughly four and a half weeks reporting in Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, where they met with U.S. diplomats and Chinese journalism professors. They visited the Beijing bureaus of the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News and the offices of the Shanghai Daily. They also visited rural villages, non-profits and businesses, and China’s Supreme People’s Court. English-speaking Chinese college students served as interpreters.

While traveling in China, students were required to file at least one story each week to the project’s student-produced Web site. Operating as backpack journalists, they worked in print, video and still photography. The result from the 2009 trip is Chinaonthemove.net, an online publication rich in photo essays, travel blogs, videos and stories covering society, culture and business. The stories range from the humorous, “Sweatin’ with the oldies,” and the heartwarming, “Graduation day at New Century,” to the socially illuminating “China’s gay community: Despite promising steps, the road ahead remains uncertain.”

“As China becomes more economically developed, the social issues that were put on hold in earlier times are now coming to the fore and need to be dealt with,” said Dahlby. “Good journalists want to be on top of such changes and probe them for meaning. I think our students succeeded in pushing the envelope, showing and telling our readers things about China they may not have known.”

Shedding the American Outlook

While the experience provided students with the opportunity to learn the challenges of working with an interpreter and trying to connect with sources across linguistic and cultural boundaries, it also trained them in dealing with politically or culturally sensitive topics.

For example, students learned to use a deft touch when it came to the Three T’s–Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen–especially considering they were there on the 20th anniversary of the infamous Tiananmen Square protests.

Fifteen journalism students on the 2009 trip to China
Fifteen journalism students traveled to Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai, and filed reports along the way.

While the Chinese interpreters were enthusiastic and helped take the students deeper into stories, there were a few cases where they expressed squeamishness about broaching sensitive issues. For a foreign correspondent, learning how to identify cultural and political boundaries and work around them adds a layer of complexity to reporting on unfamiliar turf.

Dahlby said these instances provided an opportunity to discuss with students why certain issues might elicit such a reaction and why sources see the world from significantly different points of view.

“U.S. media tend to focus on issues that are on our own social and political agenda,” said Dahlby. “We tend to see the rest of the world through issues that are important to us. Sometimes that’s exactly the way we should do it, but it can also create a blinkered view that prevents you from seeing the whole picture.”

“We come from such different places culturally, that some of the questions we asked as Westerners were lost on the Chinese,” said Kelly West, a photojournalism graduate student. “We tend to approach the world from an individual perspective, while the Chinese approach it from a communal perspective.”

Sharpening Skills

Overwhelmingly, journalists felt the experience enabled them to hone their craft, gain a deeper understanding of China and connect economic and political developments there to life here in the U.S.

Graduate photojournalism student Dawn Jones-Garcia, who hopes to document social issues as a photojournalist, admits she was terrified at the prospect of not only working in a foreign country, but also having to write stories.

The point is to heighten students' awareness of the events and processes that make this a truly interconnected world. They will become globally literate citizens and better journalists thanks to those experiences. Tracy Dahlby, director, School of Journalism

“I came back to the U.S. with a fresh perspective on what it means to be a journalist,” she said, “and the confidence that I can work in multiple media and offer a complete package: still photography, videography and writing.”

Daily Texan reporter and Asian studies and journalism senior Hudson Lockett believes that–while it’s vital to do the legwork and study a country’s political and economic position using secondary resources there is no substitute for being on the ground and experiencing the human element.

“The impact of examining China from afar is not as deep,” said Lockett, who hopes to work as a foreign correspondent in Asia someday. “The stories are not as meaningful unless you’ve met someone from Xinjiang province coming to Beijing to make a better life for his or her family. If you haven’t been there, you tend to fill in the gaps with your own assumptions.”

Gaining Broader Perspective

Not every journalism student will work as a journalist and not every participant in the China program will become a foreign correspondent. That’s not the point.

“The point is to heighten students’ awareness of the events and processes that make this a truly interconnected world,” Dahlby said. “They will become globally literate citizens and better journalists thanks to those experiences. If someone becomes a foreign correspondent, so much the better.”

In summing up her experience in China, Jones-Garcia said: “The U.S. is the greatest place–but not the only place. I’m a better person for having gone there.”

For more information, contact: Erin Geisler, KUT Radio, Moody College of Communication, (512) 475-8071;
On the banner: Man pedaling down a street in Beijing. Photo: Kelly West.