Recently I taught a three-week summer journalism program for high school students. It is the third year I have been part of this particular program. We always had a handful of international students, mostly from China. However, this year half the class was students from China ranging in age from 15-18. I knew this year would be different, but I had no much how it would change my perspective on being a journalist.
The students did the usual assignments, we attended press conferences, events, and statehouse hearings. They wrote stories and created video packages. Generally, on the weekend, we have the students research the First Amendment, but this year, we changed it up. The students broke into groups and presented the roles, rights, responsibilities, and risks of journalists around the world. Each group was assigned a country, including the United States and China. During the presentation about China, one student stopped midsentence, saying they could not say something critical. This was a child. I cannot imagine my children, or any American student at that age having to worry about what they say about their government. Just let that set in for a moment.
There was a time when we were discussing LGBTQ rights and how in the United States. The discussion turned to how, at one time, you could be arrested in the United States for being gay, and how the LGBTQ community is treated across the world. Our student from Peru weigh-in, and then a student from China was called on. The response, “we don’t talk about that.” Again let that sink in, this is a 15-18-year-old.
We had a professor come visit and talk about their work across the world as a journalist and mentioned being sent to China for Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The students from China listened intently and nodded. What we did not know is many of them had never heard of the protests. Only learning about it by looking it up online after that presentation. One of the teaching assistants compared it our nation blocking all information about Kent State.
As Americans we read, watch and listen to news about China and the Chinese government, but do we ever stop and think about the people living that and other totalitarian governments? Maybe you should. I know I am looking at international news with that perspective and reading more international news sources rather than just American based media. Understanding what the Chinese people are being told is essential for understanding their culture. As Americans, we need to become more worldly in our knowledge.
We are fortunate in the United States. You may love or despise our government, yet we will not be placed in jail for merely expressing an opinion. Reporters in this country can question and hold those in power accountable without fear of being sent to prison, or even death. That is not the case across the world.