Teaching Media Ethics — West Meets East

So, what’s it like to teach in China — especially to teach Western Mass Media Ethics?  If I had 100 yuan (about $15.60) every time I heard that question during the past five months, I could comfortably retire — at least in Beijing, where noodle dishes and taxis are very affordable.

While I’m now back at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I spent last fall semester in Beijing at the University of International Business and Economics teaching not only ethics but also basic Western-style reporting and a graduate seminar on how Hollywood depicts journalists.  In addition, I gave a series of lectures to the entire UIBE community and at other universities in and around Beijing and consulted on research projects with a variety of Chinese scholars. It was my first time teaching in China, and the first time any of my students (all of whom spoke English) had an American professor.

China’s mass media, as do the media of every nation, reflect the culture of their country.  Harmony has been the watchword of Chinese civilization since the time of Confucius, and that nation’s media produces messages designed to promote harmony among its 1.4 billion citizens.  Harmony, though, has different connotations in this society.

To quote the Christian Science Monitor’s Beijing correspondent, Peter Ford, keeping China “harmonious” means the Middle Kingdom’s authorities are “stifling dissonant voices through censorship, arrests, and other familiar tools.”  Indeed, during my time in Beijing it was impossible for me to Google “Tiananmen” or “Falun Gong” or “Nobel Prize” or “Liu Xiaobo” — or even the word “freedom.”

In all of my three classes there were student “minders” — some of whom were obvious, some not — entrusted with the task of reporting to Communist Party representatives at UIBE what transpired in my classes.  Faculty members frequently monitored my classes so they might report back to university and party authorities.

In such an environment, teaching was inherently quite different from teaching about the mass media in the United States.  News not geared to promoting a harmonious culture is considered unethical news.  Reporting of natural disasters or accidents or protests or controversies is seldom done unless a harmonious spin can be put on the reporting.

Chinese students rarely discussed the West’s media coverage of sensitive issues in their own country.  Perhaps this is because they were reluctant to confront embarrassing issues; perhaps it was because they knew so little of such coverage, some of which could be accessed via Internet only by skirting Chinese censors.  And when students discussed sensitive issues, they tended to do so in one-on-one conversations rather than in front of the class, where minders and observers might be present.  Rarely did students put in writing anything that might be seen as critical of China’s media or supporting of international media coverage of their own nation.

Nearly 90 percent of my students were women, and at UIBE as is the case with many Chinese universities, women make up the majority of the students, and this in a nation where there are more men than women. Men hold the vast majority of governmental and “private sector” jobs.

In the reporting class, students often found it difficult to ask “why” questions when interviewing university officials or others in positions of authority.  “Why” questions can cause embarrassment to officials, and thus are seldom posed by Chinese journalists.  Thus students were relatively unaware such questions could — or should — be asked, even though some students in the class aspired to one day work for one of China Daily’s new bureaus in the United States.

Students in the class dealing with journalism movies were quite surprised to see Washington Post journalists acting independently of the government in All the President’s Men. I ended up showing the movie over two days as I needed to stop the DVD frequently to answer questions and discuss the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and repeatedly explain how the media and government are separate entities in America.  After watching another movie, The Killing Fields, a few class members left the class in tears after witnessing the movie’s depiction of the atrocities of the Communist Khmer Rouge forces.

For one assignment, ethics class students divided into individual groups, with each group critically analyzing the 2011 coverage of China in a different American newspaper.  The group with the class minder was the most critical of the media’s coverage.  For the class’ final exam, ethics students were asked to evaluate an article in the Dec. 22, 2011, New York Times.  The story, by Times correspondent Edward Wong, reported on a revolt — or protest — over land sales in Wukan, a village on China’s southeast coast.  Most students found the article, headlined “Canny Villagers Grasp Keys to Loosen China’s Muzzle,” to be a fair, ethical piece of journalism.


Finally, I’m reminded of an editor I had who preached the need to let a story “die a natural death,” and not try to fashion a wrap-up bow at the end.  As I’m unable to think of a neat way to summarize my teaching experience in China, I’ll heed his advice.  So suffice it to say that despite how well my ethics students did on their final exam, teaching about Western media and media ethics in the Middle Kingdom frequently left me feeling like Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.


During the late 1980s, Dr. William A. Babcock, who has a graduate degree in international communication, was Asia Editor of the Christian Science Monitor.  When not teaching journalism at UIBE in Beijing, he is professor and deputy director of SIUC’s School of Journalism.

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