SPJ Reading Room
Importance of International/Multicultural Education: Interviews with professors and professionals
By Lee Anne Peck
Journalism educators and working journalists agree that students who hope to work in today's media organizations need to have an understanding of globalization, international affairs and cultural differences and getting this experience firsthand is optimal.
Their opinions about how students get this experience may vary, but their beliefs about the overall importance of a global education do not.
Beyond journalism basics
Susan Kreifels, the media activities coordinator for the East-West Center in Honolulu, has worked with the center's international journalism fellowship program for five years and previously worked for several years as a journalist in Asia and the western Pacific islands; she also teaches as an adjunct at the international Hawaii Pacific University.
"Understanding globalization is the key to good reporting," Kreifels says.
In other words, journalists need to help readers, viewers and listeners understand international affairs and how they affect Main Street America.
"News organizations must show them how they fit into the globalized world," she says.
However, this kind of knowledge applies to journalism students, too. Students should be prepared to be "globalization experts," she says.
Kris Kodrich, an assistant professor of journalism at Colorado State University who teaches international communication, says he encourages his students to get international exposure. He notes that the journalism department traditionally has the most CSU students who study abroad.
"Students should get a sense of the great diversity of (press) systems out there and the fact that not every system has to look and function the same," Kodrich says. "They also need to know that restrictions on freedoms can come from many sources not just governments."
Although students should learn about freedom of expression worldwide and should learn about the role a free press plays in society, Kodrich says, "students need to be aware and respectful of cultural differences."
Dan Kubiske, a freelancer who has lived and reported from overseas since the 1970s, also says U.S. journalism students need to understand how fragile the freedoms of speech, press and religion are, and that those rights need to be protected everywhere. But students also should know that with globalization, more and more foreign companies operate in the United States.
"It behooves local reporters to know what's going on in Germany, Holland and France," Kubiske says, "because if their economies or political systems become unstable, local factories or offices could close in Niles, Mich., or other small towns.
Kubiske says he believes that journalism students should be looking at "the international angle on everything."
"It's a different world in the U.S. outside the college campus and an even more different world outside the U.S.
"The more opportunities one gets to see the rest of the world even if it is a backpacking experience in Europe or Australia the better," Kubiske says. "Every time I return to the states and talk to family and friends, I am more and more convinced that people really need to see the rest of the world to better understand what is going on; Americans are too insular."
Clifford Christians, research professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has lectured on ethics in 30 countries and says he includes an international component in every ethics course he teaches. Christians' research is also global; one of his recently published books, co-edited with Michael Traber, is titled Communication Ethics and Universal Values. He says that because the electronic media, especially, are global in character, "international exposure is inescapable and even absolutely vital."
"Specific classes at home are helpful, but no substitute for studying abroad," Christians says. "We need to do everything possible to encourage it, support it administratively and financially, and work out appropriate credit in the student's favor."
Maria Trombly, Asia bureau chief for Securities Industry News, has reported on civil wars in the former Soviet Union for Reuters and was a former chairwoman of SPJ's International Journalism Committee. Trombly says she believes that students should study languages, economics, history, business and technology, "whatever it is they want to write about."
"Whenever I am in a position to hire someone, I tend not to like people who simply have a journalism degree. I want to see some content there," she says. "It's much easier to teach someone the inverted pyramid than it is to teach them a foreign language or history or economic theory."
Robert Stewart, Ohio University professor and director of the OU Institute for International Journalism, grew up in Thailand and stresses the importance of students "getting off the big island" of the United States.
"They need to get a different world view," he says. "As journalists, they can then ask better questions ... and then they will better serve their readers, viewers and listeners."
To be effective, U.S. journalists and journalism students need to go beyond "provincial attitudes," he says.
Leaving the "big island"
Although many of those interviewed for this article stressed the importance of a study abroad experience, many had other ideas about how students can expand their world views.
Stewart says that students should build an appetite for things they haven't experienced; of course there is "book knowledge," he says, but trying food and watching films from different cultures can be a place to start. And if students can't get overseas, they should get to "another coast" of the United States.
"Go to a U.S. city where Spanish is spoken," Stewart explains. "The U.S. is a diverse island."
But actually traveling or living overseas is optimum, he says, no matter how one goes about it: the Peace Corps, internships, studying abroad.
The East-West Center's Kreifels' first job after graduating from the University of Nebraska was teaching English grammar and literature to immigrants in Australia.
"Take advantage of these opportunities," she says. "Teach English in Japan; the experience is invaluable."
She says students should seek out international fellowships, too, and journalism schools today need to get actively involved in helping students get an education that helps them understand international issues.
Trombly stresses book knowledge and content for students.
"How many fluffy surface stories do we need about the latest Japanese fad?" she asks. "Replacing some of them with good, in-depth stories about the automotive industry, technology industry or politics is all for the best."
She is optimistic about the future of foreign journalism, "but students have to be careful to actually get some serious content while they're in school in order to take advantage of those opportunities," she says.
Communication students also need a framework in universal principles, Illinois' Christians says. In communication ethics, they are necessary "to prevent communities and individuals from acting out of self-interest and being defensive about their own values and decisions."
"By emphasizing universals, the field can be moved from its Western, monocultural basis and become cross-cultural, gender-inclusive and ethnically diverse," he said.
Kubiske says that he has seen the differences in journalists' ethical behavior while freelancing abroad.
"I was shocked at the number of European journalists in Hong Kong who openly did freelance work for government agencies or private companies that they also reported on," he explains. "In China, the issue is even more obscene as public relations people hand out packets of money to help ensure favorable coverage."
"What students need to know is that while the rest of the world knows more about the U.S. than the U.S. knows about the rest of the world, most of what they know is filtered through some pretty shoddy journalism. And in cases like China and Cuba, through government filters."
Lee Anne Peck, Ph.D., is a member of the SPJ International and Ethics committees and is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Northern Colorado. She recently taught international communications at Franklin College Switzerland.