Teaching journalists to fish (no telling what they might catch)

Some people at a U.S. embassy reception tonight, here in Hanoi, expressed excitement on hearing that I am teaching online journalism to about 30 Vietnamese journalists. An American suggested that I should teach them how to stay safe and not get thrown into jail. I ventured that they probably think enough about that, without any advice from me.

What will the outcome be? That question came up more than once.

How can I say? I’m teaching them some tools and techniques and urging them to think about the future, when even more people will be online (in Vietnam, “Internet user penetration was running at an impressive 21% in January 2008, and the ‘hot’ broadband segment of that market was growing at an annual rate of well over 100%,” according to MarketResearch.com).

I don’t know what stories these journalists need to tell. That’s for them to discover. I don’t know what is safe here, or what is dangerous. I don’t know how much risk each person is prepared to take.

I told them I expect that they already know what their job should be: Tell the truth, ask questions, and tell the public what they need to know. Check all facts with at least two sources. Be careful about rushing ahead with information before you have good sources to back it up.

As for online, it’s for them to choose what they will do with audio, video, graphics, etc. I have shared my opinion that imitating the funny or stupid content of YouTube would not be in the service of journalism. The lesson of YouTube is not that journalists should produce a lot of low-quality video — the lesson is that people will watch (are watching) a lot of video online. That sends a clear message for journalists.

I see my task as putting new tools into their hands and showing them how easy these tools are to use.

What any journalist does with the tools (including a pen and a notebook) is up to him or her.

One Comment on “Teaching journalists to fish (no telling what they might catch)

  1. You’ve got the right idea. Teach them how to use the tools they have available and leave the idea that they should then use those tools to dig.

    The fact that your students are interested in doing that shows how far things have changed.

    When I tought a journalism course in Shanghai about 15 years ago, the students were afraid to use a telephone to get information or additional quotes. (“You never know who you are talking to or who is listening.”) Likewise a majority — something like 60% — were interested in journalism so they could get information early and then use that information for their own financial benefit.

    In the past 5 years or so that has changed as the technology has changed. With the Internet more information is available to more people. It’s just that governments like those in CHina and Vietnam are not keen on their people really learning how to dig the depths of the Internet. So any help any of us can give in teaching the future journalists of those countries how to do that digging is a great step forward.

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