The coronavirus can’t stop the Global Business Journalism program from its mission to train reporters worldwidePosted: February 26, 2020
I was at home during Tsinghua University’s winter break when news of the coronavirus outbreak made its way into Chinese and international media in January.
As soon as I read about the deadly epidemic, I knew that my life, and my students’ lives, would be significantly disrupted. Little did I know that it also would turn into an opportunity for me and my Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication colleagues to experiment with innovative distance-learning tools, offering our students the chance to continue their education in new and exciting ways.
Despite some initial optimism in Chinese media, it was clear that the epidemic that started in Wuhan was out of control. With 35 years of experience as a journalist in the United States, I had experience in separating facts from rumors, and calmly carrying on in times of upheaval and panic. As international co-director of the Global Business Journalism program, a prestigious English language masters program at Tsinghua University, I immediately focused on my students.
Half of our Global Business Journalism students are Chinese, and they were home with their families. Our international students live in more than 20 countries around the world. Our office found out where they were and how they were doing. (They were all healthy and surprisingly calm.) Most were home with their families overseas, though a few students remained in China during the winter break, either on campus or with relatives in China.
My next priority was to prevent panic while honestly sharing the facts available to GBJ’s leaders. I realized it was important for our program’s global website, GlobalBusinessJournalism.com, to provide reliable, timely, accurate information about the coronavirus and its impact on Tsinghua students.
Early optimism, fueled by upbeat coverage in some Chinese media, led some people in our GBJ community to believe that spring semester classes would resume on campus with minor delays. As someone who has coped with emergencies as a reporter and manager, I strongly believed that there was more than a 90 percent likelihood that we would not be able to return to Beijing any time soon.
Well, unfortunately, I was right. Chinese government officials instituted quarantines around the country, and intercity travel was severely restricted. Almost every other country canceled all flights to and from China. Our students, even if they wanted to, could not return to Beijing.
Out of necessity came opportunity. Through conversations on Skype and WeChat, my colleagues and I discussed ways to create virtual classes so we could resume classes as scheduled on Feb. 17 and give students a valuable educational experience. The university’s visionary leadership had the same idea, and aggressively pursued solutions.
Tsinghua tried to create a proprietary online learning platform, but the beta tests showed that it wasn’t ready for widespread use. We needed to find a stable, reliable platform for online classes.
We also had a logistical problem. Global Business Journalism students are spread out over 22 time zones. It was almost impossible to find a time that would work for everyone. For my advanced news writing class, we settled on 8 a.m. in Washington, which is 2 p.m. for my students in France and Spain, 3 p.m. in South Africa, 5 p.m. in Oman, 9 p.m. in China, and 10 p.m. in Japan and Korea. Thank goodness Global Business Journalism students are flexible and adventurous.
Then came the Iowa caucuses in the United States on Feb. 3. As odd as it sounds, the massive technology failure in Iowa played a key role in our Chinese academic experience. The Iowa Democratic Party didn’t properly beta test its new app, and the result was disaster. It was a PR disaster, but, more importantly, it was a failure that did not serve their customers: Iowa voters, the media and the American public.
I realized it was vitally important to carefully test platforms in advance so we could provide a positive experience for the students. Our international journalism staffer, Li Chengzhang, and my teaching assistant, Wan Zhixin, tried a few and concluded that a conference app called “Zoom” was our best prospect. The university and Zoom’s Chinese subsidiary reached an agreement to let students use the platform for free until June. We beta tested the app repeatedly: once with just four of us, then a “dry run” with the entire first-year Global Business Journalism class. Then we were ready for classes, or so we thought.
Of course, there were a few glitches caused mostly by the varying qualities of internet connections around the world. But our class was an educational triumph. Students could see me, hear me, see my PowerPoint presentations, and see articles that I had called up on my computer screen for analysis. All of the other Global Business Journalism program’s classes proceeded without incident, and the student reaction was overwhelmingly favorable.
“Even though the virus has resulted in the [journalism] school having to use a virtual classroom, it’s still brought so many good stories to the front page,” said Hai Lin (Helen) Wang, a GBJ master’s student from Canada who has been staying with her grandparents in Tianjin. “I hope we can all take advantage of this time.”
I conducted the first class from my dining room table in Arlington, Virginia. For the second class, I created a China-themed classroom in my basement, with two life-sized terracotta warriors from Xi’an in the background.
I feel heartened by the outpouring of support from around the world. A typical message came from said Ralph Martin, an emeritus professor of computer science at Cardiff University in Wales and a former guest professor at Tsinghua. “I hope your online courses go well and things will soon be back to normal,” he wrote in a note shared on university social media accounts.
I’m taking this one week at a time. We could have a technological meltdown any week. But I am cautiously optimistic. And I am looking for the silver linings in this dark cloud. For one thing, I can now ask prominent journalists, academics or policymakers in Washington, Europe or Africa to join our class in real time.
I have great sympathy for everyone who has gotten sick, and mourn those who have died in the coronavirus epidemic. I feel a sense of empathy for the billion-plus people whose lives have been upended. While my academic routine has changed significantly, I can’t say that I have suffered, like so many of my friends and students in China. I think of them (and talk to them) every day.
In good times and in these challenging times, Tsinghua University has inspired me to become a better person and a better teacher. As a professor who loves teaching the brightest aspiring journalists from around the world, I owe it to my students to give them an educational experience that they will always remember … in a good way.
The world gave us lemons, and we are trying to make something sweet out of it. As one of my Texas friends said to me: “Lemonade, Rick. Lemonade.”
>>> Are you interested in applying to join Global Business Journalism or do you know a college senior or young journalist who would be interested in pursuing a master’s degree in the program? Here’s a link for admissions information.
The 2016 presidential candidates are criss-crossing New Hampshire as they enter the home stretch before the first-in-the-nation primary. Polls show the horse race is too close to call. With candidates running neck-and-neck, the air war is ferocious, but the ground game could be a game-changer. Only time will tell. This tight race is make-or-break for Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Jim Gilmore … well, all of them. It is the most important primary of 2016.
Until the next one in South Carolina.
Watching a presidential primary contest unfold from my living room (for the first time since 1972), I have been impressed by the legion of young reporters following the dozen-plus presidential candidates. (H/T Al Weaver and Alexandra Jaffe) But I also have been less-than-impressed by the cliché-littered coverage by many political reporting veterans and partisan pundits, particularly on cable television.
Here is a list of ten terrible clichés that I would ban from 2016 presidential stories … if I had the power of Donald Trump to shape news coverage.
- LANES. Enough of this garbage about “lanes.” There is no “Establishment lane,” “Evangelical lane,” “moderate lane,” “mainstream lane,” “Kasich lane,” “socialist lane” or “Penny Lane.” This is a really stupid rhetorical device. Average Americans don’t have any idea what you’re yammering about. Enough!
- SECRET WEAPONS. I’ve seen the story about Ted Cruz’s wife being his secret weapon. And the one about Bernie Sanders’ wife being his secret weapon. And Hillary Clinton’s husband being her secret weapon. That is one over-used cliché. Why are spouses “secret weapons”? They’re not secret. And they’re not weapons. Please retire this sexist, martial metaphor.
- NARRATIVE. As in “controlling the narrative.” Or a campaign’s “narrative.” “Narrative” is a means of storytelling. It is a big stretch to use it as a substitute for “setting the agenda.” To those of us who care about good writing, the word “narrative” is a valuable word that should not be devalued through misuse and overuse.
- -MENTUM. The reporter who talked about “Marco-mentum” this week thought he was being clever. No, sir. A name with the suffix “-mentum” is the new all-purpose cliché for momentum, and it’s not funny or clever. Maybe it was clever in 2004, when Democratic presidential candidate coined the term “Joe-mentum” for the (non-existent) momentum generated by his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. In 2016, it’s become such a cliché that it has become a tongue-in-cheek hashtag mocking former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore’s Quixotic quest for the GOP nomination. (#Gilmentum).
- GAME CHANGER. If Joe-mentum is a 2004 cliché, “game changer” is a throwback to 2008, when the book (and subsequent movie) “Game Change” chronicled Sarah Palin’s impact on that year’s presidential race. Now it’s used for just about any plot twist in the presidential race. Pundits predict, with dubious reliability, that it may be a “game changer.” How many changes can there be in the game? This year, way too many.
- DOUBLE DOWN. The third and final golden-oldie that should be banned from all political coverage: the term “double down.” It seems to be used almost weekly when Donald Trump says something the media considers outrageous and then, rather than apologizing and backing down, he says it again and again and again. Perhaps it is appropriate that Trump, who has made and lost billions in the gambling biz, should be the subject of a gambling-related cliché. This once was a term defining an audacious and risky strategy, but “double down” is so overused that it has lost its journalistic impact, if it ever had any.
- RE-SET THE RACE. This is what happens when a losing candidate hopes to change the dynamics of a presidential contest. The week before the New Hampshire primary, we are hearing that Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and other presidential candidates are trying to “re-set the race.” There is no need for a mechanical metaphor. Why not say that they’re hoping to remain viable?
- POLL OF POLLS. This concept is a methodologically fraudulent way that a news outlet can create artificial news by averaging a group of polls to develop its own “poll of polls.” News outlets in England used this technique — with disastrous journalistic consequences — during last year’s British parliamentary elections. CNN has resurrected its own “poll of polls” for the 2016 election. How accurate was the CNN Poll of Polls in Iowa? Not very.
- TOO CLOSE TO CALL. This is a legitimate analytical term that is misused by journalists who seek melodramatic effect. It is often used to describe poll results. It should never be used to describe poll results. Polls are not “too close to call.” Elections are only too close to call when, on election night, the margin is so small that the result cannot be predicted until more results are in. However, once 100 percent of the returns are in, and one candidate has won by 0.3 percentage points, the race is not too close to call. It is over, and one candidate has won. By a very tiny margin.
- BREAKING NEWS. This term should be banned on cable news, social media and press releases. News breaks once. It doesn’t break all night, after every commercial break, on television. A candidate dropping out of the race is breaking news. Once. When it happens. Scheduled events — like primary elections, caucuses and State of the Union speeches — are not breaking news. They are scheduled events. If you’re reporting that 16 percent of the precincts are reporting their results (instead of the previous 14 percent), it is not breaking news. It is an update.
This list of clichés is incomplete. Feel free to add your own contributions in the comments section below.
The pundits were soooooo wrong in 2015 that it seems silly for anyone to pull out the crystal ball again. Especially in the midst of the most unpredictable Republican presidential nominating process in … what, four years? (President Gingrich, President Santorum, President Perry, we hardly knew ye.)
But since so many pundits make good salaries predicting things that don’t come true, I’m going to let you in on some things that are as solid as Sears. (OK, if you’re under 50 years old, you probably don’t understand that line.)
Here are my 16 bold predictions for 2016:
- The New York Daily News headline on Feb. 2, 2016 (the day after the Iowa caucuses): CRUZ SCHLONGS TRUMP
- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the winner of the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses, drops out of the 2016 race on Feb. 3 after finishing eighth in the previous evening’s Iowa caucuses. Nobody outside of the Huckabee family notices.
- Donald Trump continues his slide from frontrunner status on Feb. 23 with a stinging defeat in the Nevada caucuses when fellow gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson pulls out all the stops in support of [Editor’s note: He hasn’t yet decided which non-Trump candidate he will support]. Front page editorials in the Adelson family’s Las Vegas Review-Journal strongly support [candidate to be decided upon later]. Adelson tells close friends that Trump eliminated himself from contention when he didn’t know he was supposed to say that Jerusalem is and always will be the indivisible capital of Israel — and then canceled his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu in a fit of pique after Adelson buddy Bibi bashed Trump for saying he’d bar all non-citizen Muslims from the U.S. — and then used “schlong” as a verb.
- Bernie Sanders will be the Mo Udall of 2016. Without the wicked sense of humor. Favorite of the liberal liberals. String of second-place finishes. His last stand will be in the Vermont primary on March 1. But while Bernie battles for his home state’s 15 delegates chosen in the primary, Hillary Clinton will take something like 207 of the 208 Texas delegates up for grabs that day.
- The Republican Party in the United States will remain the only conservative party in the entire world to dispute the fact that humans contribute to climate change. Not a good strategy to win the support of young Americans, who wonder why so many old fogies can’t accept global scientific consensus.
- The Democratic Party in the United States will continue to argue for protectionism and managed trade. The Tea Party will continue to argue for protectionism and managed trade. The rest of the world will wonder why America continues to have such a robust, resilient economy when its politicians seem to be trying so hard to destroy its competitiveness.
- America will make history again — by electing the first female president ever, the first candidate with a Spanish surname and/or the first U.S. president ever born in Canada.
- The next vice president’s last name will end in an “o.” Leading possibilities are Castro, Rubio or uh-oh.
- Ratings on MSNBC will continue to slip-slide toward oblivion. Morning Joe’s audience will be limited to the DC Beltway, Manhattan and Joe Scarborough’s family’s homes. More than 95 percent of Chris Matthews’ audience will be aged 65 and above.
- The Washington Post website, having passed the New York Times in online audience in 2015, will rocket ahead of CNN through a combination of good, solid, old-fashioned reporting and analysis and an understanding of viral-news marketing.
- The Huffington Post, having reached the limits of page views through click-bait, rewrites and journalistic trolling, reassesses its business strategy amid general stagnation.
12. American newspapers continue to reassess the ill-fated paywall fad amid mounting evidence that they are destroying any potential for long-term community-building in a misguided attempt to increase short-term revenues.
13. No pro team from Philadelphia or Austin will make the playoffs in any sport.
14. Dan Snyder will continue to top the lists of “worst sports team owner,” despite his mediocre team’s miraculous 2015 run in the NFC Least division.
15. The Pyongyang Marathon will continue to be the least popular marathon in any nation’s capital. It’s on April 10, if you’re interested in signing up.
16. American newspapers and news networks will feature stories about the poisonous air in Beijing with frightening regularity, causing the Chinese government to (a) condemn the negative news coverage and (b) develop a new and improved strategy for dealing with a problem that’s not going away, despite the occasional blasts of fresh air from Siberia.
Happy New Year to all!