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Jeff South on teaching journalism in China

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Jeff South, a Virginia Commonwealth University journalism professor, recently wrapped up a Fulbright fellowship in which he taught journalism and social media to Chinese students in Northeast China.

South, a professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, spoke with VCU News about what it was like to teach journalism in China, how he dealt with Chinese government censorship and why he believes democracy and a free press will one day come to China.

Tell me a little about your Fulbright fellowship. What did it entail?

The Fulbright Program awarded me a grant to teach journalism in China during the spring and summer of 2014. My host institution was Northeast Normal University in the city of Changchun, in the northeast corner of China, not far from North Korea. NENU is a lot like VCU: an urban university with two main campuses and an array of academic units, from education and engineering to business and the arts. I was on the faculty of the School of Media Science, which, like VCU's Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, prepares students for careers in journalism, advertising and other media professions.

At NENU, I taught two courses: on data journalism and data visualization, and on mobile and social media journalism. I also advised the student radio station and worked with journalism faculty members and graduate students on journalism skills in general and digital skills in particular.

I did most of my teaching on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. At the end of the week, I gave guest lectures and workshops at other Chinese universities, usually outside of Changchun. That allowed me to visit schools in several other cities, including Tsinghua University in Beijing, Xiamen University in southern China and Taiyuan University of Technology in Shanxi Province.

Just by way of background, Fulbright is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government. It's designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. There are actually several Fulbright programs — for students, teachers and other professionals. I was part of the Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, which annually sends about 800 Americans to about 130 countries to lecture and/or conduct research. Ten professors received Fulbrights to teach in China in 2013-14. They included one other journalism professor — Andrew Leckey of Arizona State University.

How was your experience of teaching journalism in China?

On the whole, my experience was very positive. My students at NENU were eager to learn — very hardworking, bright and passionate about telling stories. Whether you're in China or the U.S., there's only one way to learn journalism — by doing. So in both of my courses at NENU, students published a lot.

My data journalism students produced an online magazine called Data Dim Sum. It consisted of stories that the students wrote after finding and analyzing data from the Chinese government, the World Health Organization and other authoritative sources. One team of students, for example, explored the ethnic groups in China and created a "story map" profiling the Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols and other groups. Another pair of students noted that China sends more college students to the United States than any other country and discussed why. Other stories examined topics ranging from air pollution, smoking and the cost of living, to Chinese patents, Internet speeds and the age women get married. For all of the stories, the students showed where they got their data and how they analyzed it, and they created online graphics.

In my social and mobile media journalism course, students published, among other things, a website called "A Day in the Life of Changchun." It consisted of a dozen photo essays shot by teams of students on a variety of topics: a performance of the Peking Opera company in Changchun, the city's light rail system, a competition among students vying to be game-show hosts, a day with a kindergarten class and so on. One team spent the day at NENU's art school; another photographer documented, in grainy black and white, the young men who stay up all night playing video games at a seedy video parlor behind campus. After creating the website, the students then used social media to publicize the project.

What sort of challenges did you encounter?

Many Chinese students aren't used to being asked their opinions or being urged to discuss things in class. I think a lot of professors at Chinese universities operate more in the mode of "I'll lecture; you take notes." So it took a while for my NENU students to feel comfortable speaking up, exchanging ideas and offering alternative perspectives. Plus, Chinese students can be overly polite and formal — standing up when they are going to say something, for example; while that is well intentioned, it can get in the way of the honest give and take that is important in discussing story ideas or journalism in general.

Language was a problem for some students. I taught in English; all of my students were supposed to have a good grasp of the English language. But in fact, language abilities varied widely — and individual students might write well in English but have little experience with speaking or listening to English. So in class, I spoke slowly, used a lot of visual cues and did regular comprehension checks. I had students translate for one another, or I pulled out my English-Mandarin dictionary, when I could see that some students didn't get what I was trying to convey.

Probably the biggest challenge I encountered involved the government's control of information. China doesn't allow Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, so I had to learn the parallel universe of Chinese social media platforms, like Renren, Weibo and Tudou, which are censored like other Chinese media. Moreover, I was teaching during the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. In China, any mention of the "unfortunate events of 1989" is banned; the government shut off access to Google in the run-up to the June 4 anniversary. But for journalists, we can't ignore a story like that.

I explained to my NENU students how U.S. journalists cover shameful incidents in U.S. history, such as the Kent State shootings or attacks on civil rights demonstrators. And in a stealth way, I had my data journalism students collaborate on a story about the Tiananmen Square massacre. I couched the exercise as an online scavenger hunt: I instructed the students to search the WikiLeaks database of U.S. State Department cables for certain documents. They worked quietly in teams, following instruction sheets I had distributed. At the start of the exercise, the students didn't realize that most of the scavenger hunt questions were about the pro-democracy demonstrations, like "How many students were in Tiananmen Square on the evening of May 21, 1989?" (Answer: More than 300,000, according to a cable the next day from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.) After we debriefed, we compiled the students' answers into a story and published it on the web magazine Medium.

When you applied for the Fulbright, you talked about the power of journalism to bring injustice to light and transform societies for the better. Now that you're back, how did your experience in China fit into that belief?

I'm still a true believer in the transformative power of journalism. When you look around the world, you see that a free press and democracy go hand in hand. The first thing a despotic government does when it wants to control people is to shut down independent journalists; witness Russia, ISIS and many other examples.

I believe that in the long run democracy and a free press will come to China. A lot of courageous journalists in China already are working hard to make that happen, in the face of oppression by the government. They include independent publications like Southern Weekly, and investigative journalists working both inside state-owned media and on their own. In my classes at NENU, I highlighted the efforts of these truth-tellers and muckrakers, to give my students possible role models. I want my students to see that independent journalism is a valuable public service, that it provides the oxygen for self-governance. I hope my courses planted a few more seeds for those ideas.

Given your recent experience teaching journalism in China, how do you view the pro-democracy protests happening in Hong Kong?

The Hong Kong demonstrators are keeping alive the flame from the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. That is important, because China is, as the title of a recent book put it, "The People's Republic of Amnesia." The Chinese government has done a depressingly masterful job of blocking news it doesn't want its people to see, including information about both the Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong protests. But some news always gets through, at least until the censors catch up. In a country of 1 billion people, it's impossible for the government to impose total control over all communications. One thing I taught at NENU was how to see what content the Chinese government was blocking on social media. There's a website called Free Weibo that aggregates censored tweets. I showed my NENU students this — not to be subversive, but just to be a good journalist: As reporters, we need to know what's going on in order to do our jobs.

I admire the students in Hong Kong who have been leading the demonstrations there, as well as their supporters on the mainland. The government has detained nearly 100 of these people, and most of them are still being held, according to Amnesty International.

You've traveled and taught in several foreign countries, including Ukraine. How did your experience in China compare?

Ukraine doesn't have media control and Internet censorship as an official government policy, the way China does. In China, the news media are supposed to be the "tongue and throat" of the Communist Party. You must pass a political litmus test to get your journalist's license. Smart reporters can finesse the system and push the limits, but even they know there are limits and lines that must not be crossed. In Ukraine, the press has a much freer hand, although there are thugs and certain government officials who try to intimidate reporters. You can especially see the difference between China and Ukraine on the Internet: Ukraine has a totally open Net.

I spent the first half of 2007 training journalists in Ukraine as part of my Knight International Journalism Fellowship. I was based in Kharkiv, in far eastern Ukraine, on the Russian border, and I traveled all over the country conducting workshops on how journalists can make better use of technology and how they can better connect with readers and viewers. This may be a coincidence, but it's interesting to note that Kharkiv and other cities where I led workshops did not blow up during the separatist movement that swept parts of Eastern Ukraine.

Were there any interesting or unusual anecdotes you'd care to share?

One of the funniest moments I had in China involved a visit to Jilin University, which is also in Changchun. I thought I was invited just to listen to a seminar about Edward Snowden and files he stole from the National Security Agency. But when I got to Jilin University, there was a poster saying I would give a speech and lead the seminar.

Fortunately, I knew enough about Snowden to fake it. And in my backpack, I had a secret weapon — or actually two secret weapons: a pair of Rubik's cubes. I had been working on one; it was twisted so that each face was a mix of colors. The other cube was pristine, in its "solved" state: One side had nine red squares, another nine blue squares and so on.

I kicked off the discussion by taking the messed-up Rubik's cube out of my backpack and asking the students at the seminar if they knew its significance to the Snowden saga. I then explained that Snowden was holding one when he met reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong to leak them the NSA documents. It was Snowden's tipoff that he was their Deep Throat.

As the discussion continued, I pensively played with the Rubik's cube. But as the seminar wound down, I dropped the screwed-up cube into my backpack and, without anyone noticing, pulled out the un-manipulated one. I wrapped things up by announcing, "I think we've made some progress today working through the Edward Snowden puzzle." Then I held up the perfect Rubik's Cube and added, "With hard work, these things can be solved." The students, thinking I had solved the Rubik's cube, gave me a standing ovation. Little did they know that my "solution" was based on not exhaustive algorithms but mere sleight of hand.

Anything else you'd like to add?

I have invitations from a few universities to return to China this summer and teach. We'll see if that happens: I'll need permission, and a visa, from the Chinese government, and I don't know if that will come through.

My experience in China has underscored for me the role that we have as U.S. universities and American educators: I believe we need to make it clear what our values are — that we believe in democracy, free speech, a free press and other human rights. We should state unequivocally that we can't compromise on those values.


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