“There is a Misconception…That Every Journalist in China is a Bad Journalist”

Oct 152010

Bob Dowling is one of the first international professors to teach in the Global Business Journalism Program that launched in September 2007 at Tsinghua University.

In an interview with ICFJ’s Communications Director Dawn Arteaga, Dowling--a former assistant managing editor of BusinessWeek-- discusses the challenges of teaching business journalism in China—and explains how this young generation is blazing new paths.

Q: What did you teach this semester?
A: I’ve been teaching news writing and running ethics workshops. Once a week, I hold an informal seminar open to all students to talk about journalism values and story ideas. We try to create as much of a newsroom atmosphere as we can in a journalism school, and I see myself as more of an editor or a managing editor rather than a teacher. I get the students involved at looking at each other’s work as editors. I say: “OK, you play editor on this story. What would you do?”

Q: Are the students receptive?
A. They’re really very open and they are not afraid to criticize each other in a positive way. In China—as in a lot of journalism schools in the U.S.--everyone gets a lot of theory. Theory or understanding concepts is important and understanding values is important, but for most of us, journalism is daily work. It’s a craft and it’s a practice as well.

Q: Tell us about your ethics workshops.
A: I think there is a very big misconception by the Western establishment that every journalist in China is a bad journalist. That’s not true. But they are under-trained. There are a lot of people who yearn to do well and learn. At the workshop, we talk about ethics codes in other countries, particularly the United States, and the participants were able to relate that directly to their work experience in China. Other professors who were very good with video and television also showed pictures that had been distorted or tampered with. We’d get into an open discussion about it. Many participants came up to me afterwards and asked to keep in touch on specific areas and get materials from other countries so that they could relate it to what they do.

Q: Is anybody else teaching ethics in China?
A: I know the Dean at the Tsinghua journalism school is going to teach an ethics course in Chinese this spring, because he’s consulted me about good resources. He is a strong supporter of teaching Western ethics there. He was the guy who wanted ethics taught in this program. I don’t really know how many other schools teach it, but I think there is probably a limited number.

Q: What is the thing you're most proud of?
A: I guess what I am most proud of at this point, or what I’m most excited about personally, is that we have a very enthusiastic and very bright group of students, who are all willing to be pretty open. I was told that Chinese students, like most Asian students, are trained not to stand up and talk or debate, that basically they are trained to listen, memorize, and do well on exams. My students obviously had done well on exams or else they would not have gotten into this program. But they also have a sense of humor and they have a sense of what the outside world is like so they can make fun of it and say “well we’re really good at rote learning, but we need to learn to think better.” They actually say that in class and laugh about it.

So, we get into debates. They have a skeptical but humorous way of looking at the world and they are willing to laugh at each other. I think that’s healthy because the general impression I think most people have is of a journalistic society that’s under the thumb of the government and not able to do a whole lot. They think there’s a lot more opening coming.