Trip abroad offers journalism students chance to test, improve international reporting skills





American journalism students enjoy learning about the media in a country that has relatively strong protections for a free press. But those students interested in experiencing different media systems by exploring international journalism must explore different ways to get that type of first-hand experience.

The international reporting class at Penn State University offers just that, but it also means spending Spring Break not lounging with friends on the beach, but researching and writing with classmates and professors in far-flung countries.

This year’s class, taught by professor Tony Barbieri, traveled to Shanghai in March, after spending the first part of the semester learning about Chinese history and politics and developing story ideas.

“This is China’s time in the world right now and I wanted [the students] to be exposed to what is going to be the next economic superpower,” Barbieri said.

A relationship with students at the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) was another reason the city was selected, Barbieri said. Some of the SISU students were able to help the Penn State students by offering to translate and guide students.

Many for their stories were found ahead of time and contacted via phone or e-mail before students left. Stories included examinations of beauty norms in China, being gay in China and Chinese domestic adoptions, said Grace Muller, a broadcast journalism student who went on the trip. She added that broadcast journalism students had a little more trouble with sources than print journalism students, because people seemed to be averse to being on recorded on film.

Along with the help from SISU students, the group had what is called a “fixer,” a person, usually a journalist, who is familiar with the area and can help find and set up interviews with sources.

“Fixers tell you ‘Yes, that’s a good story, yes you can do it in the four days that you have here and yes, I know the people…’ “ Barbieri said. “Or they tell you ‘Yes, that’s a good story but no, you cannot possibly do that in four days so go on to something else or change the emphasis.’ “

Barbieri said he helped students determine whether certain story ideas were feasible within their four-day time limit, but in terms of preparing them to work within the restraints of a more restrictive media system, Barbieri said his advice to the students was to do nothing differently than they normally would.

“[I told them to] do everything they did completely openly and above board and not sneak around and not try and avoid anybody or evade any laws,” he said.

None of the stories students worked on were sensitive enough to garner anger from the government, Barbieri said, so with the help of their fixer and a group of international students they worked with, students were able to research their stories despite being outside of the system they had grown accustomed to in the United States.“You just go about your business as best you can,” he said.

By Katie Maloney


reports, Spring 2010