DESTRUCTIVE PROGRESS: Journalism Education in
Executive Dean, School of
Journalism and Communication
Xiguang Li, Executive
Dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at China’s world renowned
Tsinghua University, recaps his experiences teaching China’s future journalists
to offer unique insights into current inadequacies in educating journalists and
the promise that lay in global media literacy education for more engaged
In the old red-brick
building of Tsinghua’s Journalism School, located next to a 19th century
American-style auditorium of the University, students are sitting in a
classroom equipped with 40 new Lenovo computers and 10 high-speed Bloomberg
News terminals, listening to a lecture on global media literacy.
Most of the students in the
classroom are not studying journalism. They come from schools or departments of
medicine, math, physics, computer, law, business, history, foreign studies, and
After my return from the Salzburg
Academy on Media & Global Change in the fall of 2007, I started my own
ground-breaking course for non-journalism students at Tsinghua, titled: “Experiencing
News in Journalism Labs: Global Media Literacy”. I created with two goals in
mind. First, that it becomes a place for unconventional and innovative
curriculum for journalism education. Second, and perhaps more important, that
it serves as an incubator for informed journalists among non-journalism
students: for these are the students who will eventually have the greatest impact
Why will good journalism and
journalists be born predominantly from non-journalism students? Because good
journalism is all about an informed journalist meeting the needs of an informed
public. A good reporter does not have to be an insider, but rather only needs
to be sensible, reasonable, knowledgeable and unbiased. A good reporter must
also have the courage to report the truth as it is, not the truth the audience
wants. Unfortunately, most of today’s journalism is of the uniformed kind: based
on assertion, bias, rumor, gossip and public sentiment.
Marketable journalism today
is all about rumors and repeating rumors. The most readable stories about
events and persons in China could hardly hold up to scrutiny.
“I believe 95 percent of what the
press says, but the five percent I know,” a British journalism professor told a
recent workshop at Tsinghua University, talking about his experiences with the
I heard a strikingly similar
remark from a sociology professor at the 2008 New Year party in his house, “I
trust journalists for their stories about others, but not stories about me.”
What is wrong with the
press? Why does the public no longer trust journalists to provide reliable and
authoritative information? Is the press a bridge or a barrier between the truth
and the public? Who is going to blame for this widespread public distrust of
the press? As a journalism educator, I look at the deteriorating reputation of
the press and journalists largely as a result of the failure of journalism education.
Let me explain through a
quick story. Just a week before the 2008 New Year, the Chinese press and the
Chinese bloggers engaged in a heated discussion about White House Press Secretary Dana Perino’s ignorance of the Cuban Missile
“How could a spokesmodel
like her with a Master’s degree in communication be so dumb about history,” a
student asked a journalist.
“Because she has a Master’s degree
in communication,” the journalist replied.
With communication courses now
compulsory and dominant throughout the curriculum of China’s 700 journalism
schools, journalism students spend over 95 percent of their course hours
sitting in crowded classrooms listening to such compulsory course subjects as
communication theory, Chinese history of communication, foreign history of
communication, media criticism theory, media management theory, TV planning
theory, advertisement theory, cultural studies, post-modernism studies, media studies,
cultural theory of film, cultural theory of visual art, cultural studies of
digital media, readings of classical communication theories, research
methodologies of communication theories, and so on. You get the point.
Journalism schools in China
are far from being incubators for journalism innovative. Instead, they function
primarily as factories for encouraging young students and faculty to mass produce
research papers on communication theories.
In response to this current
climate, I am offering survival-minded faculty members in the man-eating-man
competitive teaching jungle an opportunity to squeeze into the already
over-loaded curriculum with a survival kit I discovered in Austria…of all
At the Salzburg Academy students
learned that journalism means access more than memory. But in Chinese
journalism schools, top students are selected based on their memorization
abilities instead of their prowess for independent, innovative and in-depth
writing and reporting.
As a result, entry barriers
are lower than ever for acceptance into journalism schools for teachers and students.
A popular saying goes like this: if you don’t know what to teach, teach
journalism; if you do not know what to study, study journalism. If you cannot
find a job, be a reporter for a living. Over the last two years, a new
journalism school is born in China almost every day. Colleagues from other departments of Tsinghua often ask me the
question: “what is the purpose of a journalism school? What is its relevance to
the real needs of the society?”
Journalism education in
China is not only becoming irrelevant to the real world but is also betraying
the core values of journalism itself. While the public is still turning to
journalists for news stories that are so vital to understanding the latest
development of the political, economic, social, scientific, medical and
educational developments, journalism schools are far from being capable of
preparing their students to report on any such development.
Take SARS for example. In
2003, at least over one million SARS stories appeared in print, picture, video,
audio, webs and mobile phones. But most Chinese journalists as well as the
public know very little about what SARS is. Further, in the spring of 2007, the
Chinese media disseminated a rumor that bananas from Hainan Island were infected
by SARS. The island’s banana industry was destroyed.
“Why did the journalists
spread such un-scientific information to the public?” a Hainan agricultural
“Because they never learned
science in journalism schools,” a journalism educator said.
China must start a new journalism
curriculum with a clean slate,” a colleague told me privately, “and a good journalism
programs can only begin with non-journalism students because they do not have
the curricular burdens of communication courses.”
At the year end each year,
the editors of the news media are coming to the universities recruiting
journalists and most of the failures in the job interviews are journalism
students. “I do not trust the journalism graduates become the sophisticated and
capable producers of news,” an editor of a leading Chinese newspaper said.
“How can you sleep well at
night when you know that your students cannot find a job?” is a question often
asked to the deans of Chinese journalism schools.
“I will have a good sleep
the day all the journalism schools are closed,” a dean said wryly.
My goal is to constructively
destruct journalism education in China This does not mean that I advocate the
detruction of journalism education at large, but rather I want to extend the
traditional core courses in journalism – the art of storytelling—to students of
law, medicine, business, politics, history and science. I want to encourage
them to use their specialized knowledge to develop clear, insightful and
authoritative news stories in words, or in video, or in audio or on the web.
The job of being a good
journalist has nothing to do with general knowledge of communication theories.
Good journalism has more do to with the journalist’s breadth of transferable
knowledge. Good journalists need specialized knowledge along with storytelling
skills to blend facts with context.
Because most journalism
students in China have no course hours for other subjects’ journalism students
are not prepared to report on the complicated realities that can meet the
demand of an informed public. They are not equipped with the common sense of
looking at the world in a reasonable and informed way. When breaking events
occur, Chinese journalists do not know where to turn for scientific evidence
and verification. They do not know the difference between assertion and
verification, between inference and evidence, between bias and fairness,
between pseudo-science and science.
I often feel frustrated
looking at the final papers of my journalism students. The final grade does not
come from the writing and reporting performance of the students, but from a few
pages of final examination papers which normally look like this:
“How many definitions does
“How many theories are there
“Who are the authors of the
“How many media critical
theories are there about journalism?”
“How many ways are there to
define the news lead?”
“How many theories are there
about writing the news lead?”
A journalism student, like a
medical student or a music student should not judged by the ability to memorize
and synthesize content but rather by transference. Two years ago, I was asked
by the ministry of education to run a workshop training 40 journalism
professors from all over the country on news reporting and writing. It turned
out that none of the journalism professors in the class had ever taught their
students how to write news lead.
Journalism educators are at
the crossroads. Where should we go from here?
Journalism students must
know how to report in an informed way, they must learn which sources to trust
and which not to trust.
If we cannot change this
reality that journalism school-produced students are losing their power as gate
keepers for important and accurate public information, we should accept the
reality and take it as an opportunity as a destructive progress force pushing for
a drastic reform of journalism education. People will greet a new journalism
education with warmth because the citizens need good journalism from informed
The Salzburg Academy is
where I saw this shift for the first time in my life.