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Business Journalism Education in a Changing China

How one Chinese university program is establishing links with the West.
By Wendi A. Maloney

In fall 2007, Tsinghua University in Beijing and the Washington, D.C.–based International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) launched the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua, one ofChina’s most prestigious universities. The two-year master’s degree program, taught entirely in English, aims to produce top-quality journalists who can analyze international business and China’s place in the global marketplace. The timing of the program’s founding and its location at Tsinghua, sometimes called the “MIT of China,” mirror ways in which Chinese journalism and higher education are changing as China becomes increasingly integrated into the world community. In spring 2008 interviews, Vjollca Shtylla of the ICFJ described the diverse motivations that brought the program together, and faculty fellow Ann Morrison reflected on what it was like to serve as a visiting journalism scholar in China at a surprisingly newsworthy time: when China was dealing with demonstrations and riots in Tibet, a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province, and preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“It’s amazing to have the Global Business Journalism Program in China,” says Shtylla, ICFJ’s vice president for development. She explains that it was made possible partly because of the initiative of Li Xiguang, the recently appointed executive dean of Tsinghua’s School of Journalism and Communication. Among his accomplishments, Li served in the 1990s as a journalism fellow at the Washington Post and as a research fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University. He was also media consultant to the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China and director of the political desk at Xinhua, China’s official news agency.

At Tsinghua, Li is founding director of the Center for International Communications, which is cited for advancing press reform in China, and he has stated publicly that, as dean of the journalism school, he wants to challenge the existing way of teaching and doing journalism in the country. Shtylla, an observer of China since her days there as an Albanian exchange student in the late 1970s, notes that Chinese journalism has “often resembled public relations.” It is not uncommon in business journalism, for example, for firms to offer money to reporters in the hope of garnering positive coverage. Other problems include stock ownership by journalists in companies about which they report. Li wants to move Chinese journalism away from such practices by teaching journalistic ethics, professionalism, and fact-based reporting, Shtylla says.

The ICFJ began working with Li in fall 2006, after Nailene Chou Wiest, a longtime business correspondent for Reuters in China, proposed a joint ICFJ-Tsinghua program to the ICFJ. At the time, Chou Wiest was teaching business reporting at Tsinghua as a Knight International Journalism Fellow—the ICFJ administers the fellowships—and she saw the possibility and need for a business journalism program at Tsinghua. She later became its co-director.

Advocate for Independent Thinking

Established in 1984, the ICFJ has organized hands-on training, workshops, fellowships, and international exchanges for reporters, editors, and media managers in more than 175 countries, including Colombia, East Timor, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, Rwanda, and Mexico. “Our idea is that if you teach people high-quality journalism, they will report on what they can report on in the context of where they are,” Shtylla explains. “The information reporters provide helps to encourage independent thinking, enabling the public to make better decisions about their daily lives. We look at it as institution building on a small scale—we hope to establish something that can grow.”

Shtylla says the nonprofit organization was interested in a joint program with Tsinghua because of Dean Li’s support and the fact that the climate for business reporting in China has improved in recent years. “There’s room to do a lot of good business reporting now,” Shtylla says, citing the example of the Beijing-based business magazine Caijing, established in 1998.

In an April 2005 article, the New York Times called the biweekly magazine’s editor, Hu Shuli, the “most powerful business editor in China,” writing that she has “artfully pushed the envelope on what is journalistically permissible.” Caijing, which has an international reputation for impartial business coverage, has published investigative reports on stock market manipulation and criticized practices at state-owned banks and well-connected companies. Still, neither Caijing nor any other publication can challenge the central government or China’s top leaders without risking repercussions, and Caijing lost when a real estate company with good political connections sued it for slander. “It’s one step forward, one step back,” Hu told the New York Times in September 2002. “But, in the last few years, it keeps getting better.”

Shtylla attributes growing diversity in business reporting partly to increased commercialization and partly to government policy. As the state has reduced its share in the ownership of media outlets in recent years, publications have begun to sell ads, compete for readers, and engage in side businesses to stay afloat. About the loosening of limits on content, Shtylla says the “government understands the need for accurate information about its markets; it wants to attract foreign investment.” She adds that although “there is definitely more freedom now, at the end of the day, the government retains control of the press.” Yet the ICFJ agreed that the Tsinghua program warranted its involvement.

The next step for the nonprofit organization was to secure funders. It found a natural partner in the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which supports other ICFJ international journalism fellowships. The largest initial contributor was financial services provider Merrill Lynch. Bloomberg, the financial news service, and the accounting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu are the other founding sponsors. By the time of the program’s launch, the funders had invested in a state-of-the-art journalism lab at Tsinghua that includes ten Bloomberg terminals that have subscriptions to international media outlets. The sponsors also host interns from the program and contribute in other ways. Merrill Lynch, for example, worked with Tsinghua to publish a glossary of financial terms and acronyms that will help Chinese and international reporters communicate using the same language.

The sponsors did not, however, determine the curriculum for the program. “They are hands-off in that area,” says Shtylla. “They understood that Tsinghua’s journalism school and the ICFJ would cooperate to put together a program that would meet the highest international standards.” She says the Tsinghua curriculum resembles the U.S. journalism school curriculum for business reporting. Students take courses in business writing, ethics, accounting and finance, research methods, and multimedia reporting, among other topics, and they analyze case studies of Chinese and international corporations. They practice their skills outside the classroom through internships and other opportunities. “Graduates of the program will grasp how China fits into the global business picture,” Shtylla says. “They will know not only how to cover China’s economy and its corporations, but also how to benchmark them internationally. And they will understand how to find information to produce factual stories, facilitating a freer range of communication.”

Push for World-Class Status

In 2007–08, the program’s first year, five international faculty fellows and seven Tsinghua faculty members taught the thirteen Chinese students and six international students enrolled in the program. The fellows also led professional training seminars for working Chinese journalists, another aspect of the program.

Ann Morrison taught advanced news reporting and writing and media management in spring 2008. She formerly served as editor of Time Europe and the Hong Kong–based Asiaweek and as executive editor of Fortune. She has reported from Paris for the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Time. ICFJ recruited her, like the other international journalists teaching in the program, for her expertise in business reporting and her familiarity with Asia. Her credentials also reflect Dean Li’s goal to bring in the best-qualified candidates from around the world to teach in the program.

“The dean is very interested in promoting the international aspect of the program and the school,” says Morrison. In November 2007, the journalism school appointed an international advisory board whose members include James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs; Seymour Topping, former editor of the New York Times; and Matt Winkler, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News.

Dean Li’s interests reflect the aspirations of Tsinghua to become a world-class university. In 1993, the Chinese government announced a plan to increase financial support to a hundred universities to enable some to achieve world-class st atus.Then, in 1998, the government provided additional support to a handful of elite universities, including Tsinghua. Known for its outstanding engineering programs, Tsinghua has educated many among China’s science, business, and political leaders, including China’s president, Hu Jintao, who earned a degree in hydraulic engineering there in 1964. (See “Chinese Higher Education Enters a New Era” by Xin-Ran Duan in the November–December 2003 issue of Academe.)

Tsinghua’s drive to achieve world class status has prompted closer integration into the international academic community through, for example, recruitment of visiting fellows such as Morrison, increased publication in international scientific journals, and more ties with foreign universities and research institutes. In Tsinghua Facts 2007, the university reports sending thousands of faculty and students abroad for international meetings and conferences. Many foreign students also study at Tsinghua, among them those in the Global Business Journalism Program—one of ten master’s degree programs offered in English in 2007–08 partly for the purpose of attracting “excellent students from abroad.”

Valuable Teaching Moments

Morrison says she had two Russian students, one Moroccan student, two students from Hong Kong, and thirteen students from China in her two courses. (Students from Hong Kong are considered international students because of the status of Hong Kong as a special administrative region within China.) She says the Chinese students “ran the gamut” in terms of socioeconomic background. Some came from privileged families with professional parents, while others came from farming families. “There was a lot of mutual respect among the students,” she notes, “because everyone realizes it takes a lot of hard work and intelligence to get into Tsinghua.”

She says she found the students intellectually engaged, optimistic about China’s future, and patriotic. “For them, every day in China is better than the last.” She reports that the students were unfailingly polite to her as a professor and that she returned the favor. “I spent a lot of time in Asia before teaching at Tsinghua, so I was accustomed to dealing with Chinese cultural issues,” she explains. “It’s important to be respectful of everyone, not to embarrass anyone in public.”

The well-mannered atmosphere did not inhibit discussion of challenging topics, Morrison says, and no one told her that any topic was off limits in the classroom. “The university is quite open,” she remarks, noting that Dean Li and other school leaders encouraged debate about news coverage of current events while she was there as a way to explore issues in journalism. One such debate focused on Western media coverage of the March 2008 demonstrations and riots in Tibet. Many Chinese media outlets and blogs bitterly criticized Western reporting of the disturbance as slanted in favor of the Tibetan protesters and against China. In response, Dean Li brought journalism students and faculty together to evaluate it.

Morrison was often asked about the cropping of a Web photo by the U.S. news network CNN that critics say eliminated an image unfavorable to the protesters. She agrees that the CNN Web site did crop the image, although the reason is unclear. “The picture was hard to read at best,” she says. “Errors can happen, especially when editors have to make quick decisions based on thumbnail images.” Another problem raised was the misidentification in German media of Nepalese police acting aggressively toward monks in Nepal as Chinese police in Tibet.

Morrison says she did not defend the actions identified but, as in the example of the CNN photo, tried to explain how errors can occur when news services report on unfolding events. “I tried to say that people in newsrooms can simply just make mistakes,” she says. For emphasis, she would cite the repeated conflation by Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, of Tibet with Nepal on a Sunday news program in the United States. “Even he makes mistakes,” she would say. “The point is that it’s important to acknowledge them.”

Another current event, the devastating May 2008 earthquake centered in Sichuan Province, provided a different kind of teaching opportunity. Chinese journalists had unprecedented access to the disaster area in the days immediately following the quake, and hundreds reported freely about rescue and relief efforts, the plight of victims, and problems such as the collapse of many school buildings. “The way the Chinese press covered the earthquake matches the position of the Tsinghua journalism program on how crisis communications should be handled,” says Morrison. “Get the news out. Tell people if you don’t know something. Don’t write that things are perfect; state what you are worried about.” A student in one of her classes volunteered to draw on news stories to compare the response of the United States in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina to the reaction of China to the earthquake.

One teaching role that Morrison did not anticipate was being asked to comment in meetings that included government officials on the Chinese government’s approach to media. “The university has close ties to the government, since it has educated many among the political leadership,” she explains. “It’s hard to contain and control the media, and the government is trying to figure out how to deal with a changing environment. So it is asking for and listening to advice from different people.”

Morrison says the most challenging part of her fellowship was her lack of fluency in Chinese. She knows enough Mandarin to order a meal and get around Beijing. “But I experienced immense frustration at not having a complete grasp of the discourse going on around me,” she says, adding that she missed out on some visiting campus speakers and events because she could not read the Web notices announcing them.

Aside from linguistic problems, Morrison found her time at Tsinghua fascinating. “I feel very privileged to have had this opportunity,” Morrison says. “It was really interesting to observe from the inside how this country is changing and trying to cope with media challenges. And teaching, particularly in this environment, has made me much more aware of the power of words and images, of subtle and overt biases, both in Western and Chinese media, and of the importance of fact-based journalism.”

Vjollca Shtylla says the program enrolled a second class of sixteen international students and fourteen Chinese students in 2008–09. She notes that the founding sponsors initially committed to two years, but the ICFJ hopes they or other funders will enable the program to go on. “The ICFJ is very proud of this program,” she says. “We don’t know how long it will continue at this point, but we definitely see it as a success.”

Wendi A. Maloney is a writer-editor for the U.S. Copyright Office at the  Library of Congress. She was managing editor of Academe from 1997 to 2007.

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