I'm at the World Journalism Education Conference this week, where I had my first experience of presenting an academic paper.
To be honest, I am still on the fence as to whether I'm really cut out for academia over the long term. I just started my three-year contract at Hong Kong U, and I'll certainly stick with that commitment, but beyond that I'm not sure. I may or may not have the patience for it. There are some things about academia - having space and time to think about issues that truly interest and concern me, for instance - which I really value. Other aspects of academia (not specific to any one institution necessarily) are mind-numbing, frustrating, and to put it bluntly hypocritical. But then I guess we can say that about most if not all professions, can't we? I'll write more about my impressions of this conference - and the journalism education profession more generally - in a later post. (Meanwhile read Guy Berger's excellent blogging of many sessions here.) But my main headline is that while nobody here will quite admit it, journalism education is in an even greater crisis of purpose than the journalism profession generally. Why? Because academic institutions are several magnitudes less flexible than news organizations when it comes to change.
Presenting a paper at an academic conference is the polar opposite of blogging - or journalism for that matter. We had to submit our finished papers in early January in order to have them considered for presentation this week. We were required to submit papers that had not been previously published elsewhere - so now that I've presented it perhaps the thing may get published in some academic journal by next year. By which time the entire thing will be completely out of date.
My paper, titled "Blogs and China Correspondence: How Foreign Correspondents Covering China Use Blogs," summarized the results of a survey I conducted last Fall of foreign correspondents who cover China. The responses I got back showed that blogs have become an important part of the media diet for foreign correspondents who cover China. For further details, see this December blog post in which I previewed many of the key results. A PDF of the whole thing can be downloaded here. (511.0K)
Many people here at the conference found it surprising that blogs are already having such a substantial impact on foreign journalists' China coverage. Another finding that surprised people was that a lot of working journalists (unlike most people who study or write about journalism) find it useless to ask whether blogs in general are more or less "reliable" or "credible" than some other medium. Journalists evaluate each blog according to its individual merits, depending on what is known about the blogger’s background and track record. This is the same way a journalist evaluates any source - whether it's a person or a local newspaper in the city where they work, or whatever.
At the end of the paper, based on feedback from journalists and the kinds of blogs they claimed to read regularly, I offered some conclusions about what kinds of blogs are of greatest value to China correspondents (and likely all journalists). They tend to be blogs that go beyond personal opinion and essay-writing in reaction to news events reported by mainstream media. They tend to contain at least one of the following:
- original information not readily available elsewhere;
- in-depth perspective based on specialized knowledge;
- information or insight on places and people the journalist cannot easily access;
- links to original documents and resources;
- translated items from the original language on subjects that the international media tends to be interested in – or which they might be convinced to pay attention to if the material is interesting enough.
Finally, I asked: "To what extent can we extrapolate from the relationship between blogs and China correspondence to a more global relationship between blogs and foreign correspondence? Are Israeli and Palestinian bloggers as important to international correspondents covering Israel-Palestine, for example?" I hope people will start surveying larger groups of correspondents covering different countries and regions so that we can find out.
My own hypothesis is that the relationship between blogs and foreign correspondence varies widely from place to place. Just based on my own observations and conversations with journalists I know, blogs are probably more important to China correspondents than to journalists covering a story such as the Israel-Palestine conflict for several reasons:
- The China story in the international media is not dominated by military conflict or any one obvious single storyline;
- The China story is not generally a “breaking story,” but rather a “process story” about how this complex and geopolitically important country is changing, and what that change means for the rest of the world;
- There is strong demand for specialist insight, information and analysis on a range of subjects;
- Official controls on professional media and public speech in China are strong;
- Many sources are fearful of consequences of speaking directly with foreign journalists;
- Access to on-the-ground or reliable information outside of major cities is often difficult;
- China’s Internet population is sufficiently large and the material available on the Chinese Internet is sufficiently interesting in comparison with Chinese mainstream media sources.
In a breaking-news, conflict-oriented region where the local media is lively, diverse, relatively free, and non-Internet sources from all sides abound, I would guess that blogs are unlikely to be as important a source for foreign correspondents as they are in China. But this is just a theory. What we really need is a comparative survey of international correspondents covering a range of countries, so that we can get a more global picture of how blogs fit into the overall ecosystem of international news.
Of course, another thing that has yet to be done is a thorough study and analysis of the relationship between Chinese blogs and the Chinese news media. Michael Anti talked a bit about that relationship at Hong Kong U in April. That's a much bigger project, but is probably key if we want to understand China's rapidly evolving media ecosystem.