Bringing American-style journalism to Chinese high school students

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Reflections on an inaugural high school journalism conference

By Kelly Furnas
Elon University

Amid a backdrop of international language barriers, governmental censorship and an educational system that devalues creative thinking, Chinese high school students still learned about journalism through an inaugural national high school conference.

“Generally there is a surging trend for more popularity of right-brain subjects.” -- Zhu Lin, Youth Impact China

The conference, held earlier this year, was organized by JEA China, an affiliate member of the Journalism Education Association headquartered in the United States.  The conference included U.S. and Chinese presenters.

JEA China — an affiliate member of the Journalism Education Association headquartered in the United States — is hoping to capitalize on those obstacles by providing programming tailored for high school students hoping to study in the West.

Zhu Lun, one of the architects for JEA China’s conference, as well as the organization itself, is chief executive officer of a nonprofit organization called Youth Impact China, which he started in 2015 to provide extracurricular programming for high school students in subjects such as business, finance, biology, art, design and journalism.

“Although business and technology are the most popular subjects, we found that journalism and media still has its market among students in China,” Lun said. “Generally there is a surging trend for more popularity of right-brain subjects.”

China’s history helps explain the traditional emphasis schools have placed on certain subjects. The formation of the People’s Republic of China meant a need to rapidly catch up on industrialization, creating the initial focus on STEM curriculum. And the country’s economic and market reforms of the 1990s led to increased focus on business and finance.

But curricular expansion has since stalled, and therein, one could argue, is actually the largest threat to scholastic journalism education in China. It’s true, the government restricts access to information by blocking citizens’ access to sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Google. And journalists inside China face censorship, expulsion and even jail time for reporting on material the ruling Communist party finds objectionable. (Reporters Without Borders ranks China 176th on its press freedom list. That’s out of 180 countries.)

But it’s the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or Gaokao, that is truly preventing high schools from teaching journalism or any other courses Americans might describe as electives. The exam is the overriding factor in determining admission to Chinese universities, and so high school students’ coursework is relegated to topics that appear on the exam: mathematics, Chinese literature and foreign language, as well as social and natural sciences.

“Gaokao subjects like Chinese and English tell students that there is only one correct answer to everything,” said Xumin Hu, who served as chief operating officer of Youth Impact China for a year before moving to an online education company in China. “Showing understanding of different perspectives is hugely discouraged.”

And without a curricular push or collegiate benefit, journalism is not a priority for students, their parents or their schools.

“Gaokao doesn’t have a component to test your journalism skills,” Hu said, “so students, parents and teachers do not have a direct incentive to offer journalism training to kids.”

Studying abroad

But although both Hu and Lun think the traditional Gaokao preparatory model is providing insufficient education for Chinese students, it has also opened up a niche opportunity for Youth Impact China.

UNESCO estimates that 712,157 Chinese college students studied abroad in 2014, with 260,914 — or more than 35 percent of them — choosing to study in the United States. (Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom each drew about 90,000 Chinese students in 2014.) That might seem like a drop in the bucket considering that UNESCO also estimated a total college enrollment in China to be 41,924,198 for that same year.

But it’s still a sizeable market for which Youth Impact China can provide educational programming. After all, despite the proliferation of standardized testing in the United States, most domestic universities still say they value a high school student’s grade point average, extracurricular involvement, writing ability or references.

Catering to this audience, Lun estimates, are about 1,000 international college preparatory academies, and that is where Youth Impact China is targeting its efforts.

“The international schools and departments only have faculty resources to teach languages and the TOEFL and traditional subjects like chemistry, biology, physics, etc.,” Lun said. “But they lack resources and teachers ready to teach practical or professional subjects like business, journalism, engineering, environmental science.”

In its first national journalism conference, JEA China attracted 63 students, as well as two teachers, to Suzhou, a city in the Jiangsu province on the northern border of Shanghai. The conference itself took place on the campus of Duke Kunshan University, and while the university didn’t have a formal role in the event’s programming, the Western-style campus provided another cultural glimpse for students considering studying in America.

Heyou Pan, a student at the Nanjing Foreign Language School, attended the conference to broaden her cultural understanding. She is hoping to study theater and scriptwriting in college.

“If I want to explore drama, I must learn more about social backgrounds and cultivate my instincts,” she said. “If I get the opportunity to meet with more people, writing a script won’t be such a huge task.”

The conference was only an hour-and-a-half bus ride from Shanghai’s airport, allowing students from around the country to easily fly in. Thirteen of China’s 23 provinces were represented, a number that Lun hopes can increase with better marketing.

“For the debut event, our regional coverage wasn’t bad,” Lun said. “But we did promote the program to provinces across China. We definitely need to work harder and be more efficient on this.”

Yet holding the conference near (but not in) cosmopolitan Shanghai, and on a Western-style campus, also provided instructors and students a wide sense of freedom to discuss journalistic issues that might raise an eyebrow of governmental authorities. For example, several students, while still exhibiting deep pride for their country, openly lamented the restrictions put on journalists by governmental censors.

And at one point in a mock press conference, a student was quickly chided by a Chinese judge after the student expressed frustration at what he called a “disinformation campaign” by Western media and governments to smear Chinese culture and policies.

“I feel like you’re just repeating party propaganda,” the judge said, referring to the ruling Communist Party of China.

“No, I’m not. I disagree with party leaders on many issues,” the student said.

Later, the student — who also attended an international preparatory school — told me he wasn’t surprised by the confrontation.

“My teacher at school doesn’t like the topic, either,” he said. “She disagrees with the point I’m making.”

Julian Parrott, associate dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois, served as a speaker and judge during the conference and said, to JEA China’s credit, the conference didn’t shirk from issues of censorship and encouraged students to write freely. Yet, he said, most students were either unable or unwilling to challenge the limitations on free speech.

“It was noticeable in one of the major assignments, which revolved around investigative reporting on an issue of social justice, where no student criticized central government officials, policies or philosophies,” Parrott said.

That trepidation, he said, will probably lead many students such as Pan to pursue a career in communications, but perhaps not bona fide journalism.

“A number of the students noted that the lack of press freedom was effectively stymieing career opportunities in China and they were, therefore, looking at using their journalistic abilities in fields like public relations or strategic communication,” Parrott said. “Those students that wanted to work as journalists wanted to focus on sports or entertainment news.”

Immersive education

The conference’s proximity to Shanghai, the world’s most populous city, provided a unique learning opportunity for the students, who spent the third day of the event on a field trip to the bustling financial district to do research for their news story competition.

“I had to overcome my fear, but I had three successful interviews with total strangers,” Pan said. “I feel proud.”

As a whole, the conference was modeled loosely on JEA’s own national convention, held biannually in the states. Students had educational instructional sessions, keynotes and even documentary screenings.

One of the films came from multimedia journalist Xiaoran Liu, who screened her documentary “Crossroads of Journalism Dreams,” a moving story about four Chinese journalism students at Columbia University and the cultural, legal and ethical struggles they face in school and trying to find employment post-graduation.

“I hope the high school students know about what they will experience if they choose to study journalism abroad — both the advantages and the disadvantages,” Liu said.

In her documentary, Liu’s subjects debate the value of returning to China and practicing journalism with little press freedom, versus the arduous task of trying to obtain a work visa to stay in the United States.

And while her documentary also explores the deep emotional isolation some students feel in the United States, her work at the JEA China conference gave her optimism about the next generation of students who might study abroad.

“What surprised me was that they are closer to the world and are more open-minded toward diversity than I expected,” Liu said.

Despite the conference’s practical and cultural educational components, the bulk of the event was devoted to competition. Students developed investigative news stories, multimedia packages and public relations strategies while on-site, with winning entries honored on the last day of the conference.

“In the competitive Chinese school environment and the Chinese culture, people like to win awards,” Hu said. “So we had to accommodate that by hosting different competitions for students to try and get the recognition they strive for. This was also the first time for us to host the journalism conference, and since journalism is a relatively vague concept to students, we had to prepare different varieties of competitions to give them a wide range of journalism and media to learn and compete with.”

Hu noted, however, that with students coming to the conference with very little — if any — journalism training, bringing them up to speed quickly on basic journalism skills was a necessary program component.

Chinese filmmaker Hexin Zhang provided a multimedia workshop, and Beijing-based freelance photographer Yan Cong taught a session on photojournalism. I taught the basic newswriting session.

Education always goes both ways

Between classes, journalism camps, workshops and conventions, I probably have taught my hourlong “basic newswriting” session at least 150 times in America. I regularly update examples, but the foundational elements are essentially the same — news values, the inverted pyramid, brevity, active voice, nut grafs, quotes, etc.

But months before the conference, I found myself questioning the applicability of every bullet point in my slideshow. After all, how would an anecdote about my students investigating local building inspections play in a country that has no concept of open records laws?

The results of my instruction were admittedly hit-and-miss. I gave the students a scenario about a gymnasium collapsing at a local high school, and the ledes they turned in were right on target with what I’ve seen in university reporting classes. I had them write headlines and Tweets (yes, all the students knew what Twitter was, despite its being blocked in China) about a winter storm, and the resulting work and discussion showed lots of strong word choices and tight writing.

But I tested my luck when I asked students to cover a simulated breaking news event by watching video interviews. A couple of students were still able to pull out the most important news from the simulation, but for most the information was coming way too fast to process.

As I was walking out of the classroom, I stopped to talk to Hu, who had attended my workshop.

“Well, that didn’t go over very well,” I said.

Hu disagreed.

“They need to see what the expectations are at American universities if they want to study there,” he said.

Most Chinese students begin learning English in the third grade, but the students at JEA China had a wide range of proficiency. Where they struggled was not in understanding or being understood, but in the specificity of language and word choice that American journalism requires.

In one team’s public relations plan to strengthen cultural ties between China and Japan, the students wrote,

“In order to broaden the span of exchanging knowledge, we will run an Internet platform where teenagers from Japan and China can communicate directly. By sharing the beauty of culture and each one’s own opinion about history, students gain an objective cognition of regional difference and broad mind. In order to let most of our target students hear about our plan, we may propagandize our plan in social media.”

Such writing, reinforced by sometimes-clumsy translation services, will pass muster on students’ TOEFL exams, but it will fall short for students taking freshman-level reporting classes in journalism schools.

Parrott, as a U.S. university administrator, came away impressed with the students’ oral English but concerned about their written and practical language skills.

“The level of English isn’t at a level that would prepare a student to take a full load of humanities or social sciences classes that would require a high degree of skill to read and comprehend, to write and explain, to create or to convey complex ideas,” he said. “They could craft flowery sentences but lacked the ability to be creative outside of a rather poetic yet formulaic adjective.”

Recognizing this, JEA China was deliberate in its programming to force students to interact with Western educators. The conference devoted two-and-a-half hours each during its second and third nights to allow small teams of students to receive critiques from instructors.

For Pan, the opportunity for high school students such as her to interact directly with faculty from U.S. colleges ended up being her favorite part of the conference.

“I had an amazing feeling while talking to professors face to face,” she said. “They were patient and, even when I couldn’t express myself clearly, they were still energetic and passionate. For introvert students who are afraid of speaking the thoughts out loud in class like me, these meetings meant much more.”

Moving forward

The largest component of skill mastery is repetition, and Youth Impact China knows this. Chinese students are already receiving the repetition of mathematical and scientific skills as they prepare for the Gaokao, but it’s up to organizations such as JEA China to immerse the students in journalism and English-language experiences.

Lun is planning to bring seven students to the National High School Journalism Convention this November in Indianapolis, where the students will be exposed to more than 300 breakout sessions on journalistic skills, as well as choosing from 50 on-site contests to see how they stack up against the best American high school journalism students.

“U.S. students have ready adviser training and have experiences and preparation in advance,” Lun said. “So Chinese students foresee little winning chance in the competitive events.”

Lun said while the educational piece of the U.S. convention will still be beneficial to the students, the competition is a necessary component to ensuring their ability to travel.

“In China, students want a program to demonstrate their learning ability, academic competencies and major interests to good colleges,” he said. “Basically, I hope they can come up with their own journalism work through the competition and leverage the convention as a good opportunity to learn, to solicit feedback and to polish their work.”

Planning is underway for JEA China’s 2017 conference, and Lun is considering moving the summer workshop to Washington, D.C., to increase what he called the “exotic learning experiences” for students, but more importantly to tap into the professional and scholastic journalism resources without the expense of flying them to China. (Northern Virginia in particular boasts among the best high school journalism programs and teachers in the country.)

“Chinese teachers are also willing to support overseas programs more since those teachers will get more stipends for their promotional and advising work on overseas programs than on domestic programs,” Lun said. “That’s how capitalism works.”

kelly-furnasKelly Furnas is a lecturer in multimedia journalism at Elon (N.C.) University and faculty mentor to Elon News Network.

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