Students at Tsinghua Open the Classroom to Exchange Tips

May 92010

Marcus Muharia from Malawi presenting during an open classroom

On Dec. 10, 2008, the GBJ international faculty at Tsinghua University combined a teaching class with an open classroom to show the GBJ students how to cover large conferences. The idea of open classroom, initiated by the faculty in 2008, is intended to get GBJ students together to informally discuss topics of common interest. Anyone is free to participate and bring along friends if they like.

Covering a conference looks easy. But as GBJ visiting professor Bob Dowling points out, it is really one of the most difficult assignments a good journalist faces, because hundreds of reporters can show up at a UN, World Bank, IMF or economic summit meeting and everyone gets the same handouts and scripted interviews. The easy way is to take the handout and rewrite it; then you have nothing to add beyond what everyone else offers, observes Dowling. So to practice good journalism from a conference, says Dowling, you have to do a lot of searching and pre planning and know what the "smart story" might be.

Over pizza and refreshments at the open classroom, two experienced journalists in the GBJ program, Marcus Muhariwa, a broadcast journalist from Malawi and Jonathan Gandari, a print journalist from Zimbabwe and South Africa offered a series of practical tips on the topic to a full room of students and guests. Their advices range from visiting the conference hall in advance to looking for best interviewing and camera angles to knowing in detail the background of each member attending and doing early reporting with their key staff members.

“Covering a conference can be a mess”, noted Marcus. “Think ahead and focus your story before you go. Search the subject and know the biases. Try to survey the scene a day in advance. No detail is too small, the entrance ways, length of the corridors, where the leaders will enter and exit. Set the camera angles, check your batteries, and check them again. There is no excuse if you miss the shots. Dress properly, make your sources feel comfortable with you and know all of their aides for checking afterward.”

“The hardest part is staying alert”, advised Jonathan. “Speeches are mind numbingly boring. One trick is to keep revising leads in your head, working off the story you plan. Watch you tape counter so you can find the quote you want fast. Sit up front so they can see you. Even if you did a tough story about a minister before, he may want to take your questions afterward. They are politicians, they always want to persuade. Never think they won’t talk to you.”

The session generated a lot of interest among GBJ students and helped them hone practical journalism skills that would be valuable in their coverage of real-world conferences.