China in Focus

Imagine a world where Facebook and Twitter weren’t accessible, Web pages took 10 minutes to load, and the government looked over your shoulder whenever you clicked the Firefox icon.

No–this isn’t the work of 1984’s Big Brother. It’s the reality UT study abroad students faced while participating in Reporting China, a “Maymester” program in the College of Communication.

This year’s Reporting China course, taught by Professor Tracy Dahlby, trained 16 Longhorns to be foreign reporters while on a monthlong journey to Beijing, Shanghai, and the village of Xiejiaqiao.

The culmination of their work abroad can be found on the students’ website, China in Focus. Crafted entirely by the team, China in Focus features pictures, videos, and about 80 stories they produced during their time in China.

The students say they enjoyed the experience—but due to the heavy regulation of web activity by the Chinese government, on top of the usual roadblocks foreign correspondents face, their class had many difficulties with the site.

Between the so-called Great Firewall of China, the lack of social media access, and the inability to post video, the team saw firsthand the difficulties of reporting overseas. The team eventually resorted to sending video and stories back to an Austin classmate who could safely post the content for them.

Fried Scorpions. Photo by Lizzie Chen. Courtesy China in Focus.

“The experience certainly opened my eyes not only to the difficulties foreign correspondents face, but also to the hardships journalists in China endure,” says Avery Holton, the site’s managing editor. “Not only are they heavily monitored and censored, they’re also largely influenced by the state government.”

Another challenge: the language barrier. Working at the grassroots level to find stories proved difficult; though interpreters were on hand to assist the students during the reporting process, it was the classic foreign correspondent’s challenge.

“It’s a lot like the movie ‘Lost in Translation,’ where your source will take two minutes to respond to your question in Chinese and then your translator just gives you back a five-word response,” says Claire Cardona, content editor of China in Focus.

Though the students saw these challenges as new, Professor Dahlby points out that “logistical hurdles” are a perennial part of a foreign correspondent’s job, regardless of what country he or she is reporting from. And while increased governmental control of the Internet in China may hinder some parts of the job, the rise of the Internet has changed foreign communication for the better.

“Communicating with editors and audiences back home is infinitely easier in the digital age than it was 20 years ago when the Internet and telephone hookups were often unreliable or nonexistent,” Dahlby says.

The budding journalists utilized these new-aged communication channels and learned non-technological reporting techniques to produce stories about a wide array of topics, including childhood obesity, Shanghai drag queens, and Chinese cuisine, including the fried scorpions above.

“You can prepare all you want back in the classroom for this kind of experience,” Cardona says. “But once you’re actually out in that foreign environment, you can never really predict what’s going to happen.”

Tiananmen Square Photo by Claire Cardona. Courtesy China in Focus.


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