HONG KONG – An Australian friend and colleague began teaching journalism this semester at Hong Kong Baptist University, and we recently commiserated over deep-fried pigeon how aggravating it is when students dare ignore our wisdom.
Since my colleague is new to university teaching in general, I preached to him the virtues of an occasional tongue-lashing of wayward students. Bouquets of praise and encouragement only go so far. Whether face-to-face or via email, I find nothing wrong with letting loose the occasional abuse – a tough love, borne of concern.
In the sanctuary of university brick and mortar, they can get away with missteps or outright mistakes. Next year, in the real world, they may pay a price. Why not scare them straight?
Since I always advocate the benefits of “show, don’t tell” through concrete example, here’s an email I sent to students during their recent reporting project — written for the class of my HKBU colleague, Robin Ewing, but which I then critiqued — on how to sensitively and professionally approach the reporting of minority communities.
Not surprisingly, it drew stony silence — though, the final articles produced were impressive overall:
Oct. 20, 2011
No more Mr. Nice Guy!
There’s an old tale of the Western foreign correspondent who walks into the Rwandan refugee camp and bellows: “Is there anyone here who’s been raped … and can speak English?!”
Nice image, huh? Well from what I’m hearing, some of you may be doing essentially the same thing with these minority-issue assignments:
“Looking, looking, looking … wait, I see someone with rounder eyes and darker skin! Excuse me, but are you a minority? Yes? Excellent! Please tell me all about your troubles in Hong Kong!”
It’s an insensitive approach – and unprofessional.
If you did it so randomly, you would have practically ZERO contextual background behind this person’s story. Without knowing A BARE MINIMUM OF THEIR HISTORY, how superficial, even naïve, would your questions be?
Now, muster empathy: imagine yourself in their shoes.
Even if they agreed to speak with you, right then and there (on the street?), do you really think they would open their souls to you about what it’s like to be a minority here? They would spot right away that you knew so little of their back-story. They wouldn’t take you seriously. Neither would I.
Moreover, they might be a bit suspicious of who you are and what your intentions are. “Why is this young Chinese person from the mainland” – for example – “asking all these questions about me and my community?”
No, really, I’m a student-journalist! I even have a website!
Robin was quite clear in her instructions. I tried to reinforce that message, with a little something extra thrown in.
Robin was also generous, despite her sickly condition, to offer you a few more days to do this assignment. Great news. Amateur hour is over!
Start with the issue! Start with the NGO! Shoot them an email TOMORROW (Friday). Then follow-up with a telephone call AN HOUR LATER. There’s no more time to mess around. Time to become, as I always preach, “Polite but persistent, persistent but polite.” Apologize for appearing pushy, but you’d be grateful if they could please meet with you either over the weekend, or Monday or Tuesday. Whenever is the soonest you can get there.
Until you meet them, you prepare – not a crazy amount, but certainly enough to have a deep, meaningful conversation. I trust your judgment.
Go interview them at their place. Express great Darwinian curiosity in them, their organization and all their activist efforts.
Earn their trust! When (not if) you do, you can kindly ask them to please CONNECT YOU WITH THE PERSON YOU WANT TO HUMANIZE.
“Oh, and as soon as possible, please? I’d appreciate it very much!”
If necessary, you offer to quote that source anonymously. The most important thing is that you hear their story and UNDERSTAND IT FULLY.
Oy, all this tough love is exhausting. Nurse! …