Reinvention” through International Journalism Internship—American Students Reporting for the Chinese Media

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Abstract

It’s hard to imagine starting a newspaper internship for American journalism students in late 1990s in China, whose press is characterized as the communist press controlled tightly by a communist government in textbooks on international communication and often criticized by the media in the United States for heavy-handed government censorship. In such a media environment, how can our students, mostly undergrads from rural Midwest, perform given their journalism training and education about the First Amendment, media laws and the value of independent journalism? In China there are no press laws. Are our students prepared for such a challenging international internship given the drastically different political, social and cultural environment? Can our students adapt and will such an internship experience benefit them? Our school is located in a small city with a population of around 25,000, which includes the student population living off-campus, while Beijing has a population of 21 million people. No wonder one student intern said, “I know Beijing is big. But I didn’t know it’s this big.” And there is the concern with safety—physical and political. When it was first started in 1999, there was only one applicant, who asked if her email account would be monitored by the Chinese government. Today our best students apply, and three former interns are now working for Chinese news organizations in Beijing, and one is going to be enrolled in the grad school of one of the best journalism programs in China. The internship is a part of the exchange program between the American university and the Chinese newspaper, which sends its senior editorial staff to visit the American university to guest speak in classrooms and provide open forums on campus. This research project is designed as a case study on the 16-year newspaper internship program between a public university in the American Midwest and a national daily in China. The objectives of this research project are an in-depth analysis and assessment of the value of the program in terms of international education and professional training, the challenges of the program in terms of preparations of the candidates and the impact of major world events on the program so that such an international internship program can reach its full potential and that more students will be inspired to seek out such opportunities to enrich their educational experience. Over the years the program sent 12 students to intern in Beijing and hosted 10 senior reporters and editors from the Chinese newspaper. This researcher will reach out to all the former interns to conduct in-depth interviews about their internship experience in Beijing to gain more insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the program, what could be improved, and most of all, if the experience have had an impact in their professional careers. With diverse experience of the student interns and vastly different outcomes of the internship, the interviews will also focus on what made the internship a rewarding experience and hopefully help reveal hidden challenges that might have stymied an otherwise promising internship. This paper will provide the campus climate for the start of the program and the background of the China in late 1990s. The paper will introduce the rapid changes in the Chinese society, economy and its media in the last 16 years and how those changes impact the internship program. The paper will also discuss how to keep professional connections to the hosting newspaper strong. The paper will also examine various aspects of the internship, including negotiating the program agreement between two parties with completely different cultural, social, political and even currency values, cross-content logistics, safety and liability issues, funding and recruiting student applicants and institutional support so that the program can be sustained and improved and other similar programs perhaps might benefit from the discussions. Despite many challenges along the way, such as the outbreak of SARS in China when the university banned students from traveling to China, or September 11 terrorist attacks in America when entry visa to America was denied to the visiting journalist from the newspaper in China, or the current policy changes in China regarding foreign student visas, this researcher believes that international education and professional preparation through international journalism internship programs hold great promises and potential for our students. If done right, more students can participate and benefit from them. And overtime such exchanges can not only advance journalism education and careers, but also lead to greater cross-cultural understanding and peace journalism led by globally aware new generations of journalists.

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