Before I arrived at West Texas A&M as a faculty member in the Department of Communication, I was teaching in Seoul, South Korea. I had really great cable television service, so I kept up with the day’s events through several English-language news networks and programs: the BBC, CNN International, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Arirang TV (based in Korea) and China Central Television (CCTV).
As someone who spent my entire career as a journalist before moving into teaching full time, it was a great opportunity for me to compare CCTV’s coverage to that of other networks, especially when the topic was related to China.
One particular episode stands out. The summer of 2009 marked the twentieth anniversary of the Chinese government’s violent response to protesters in Tiananmen Square. To remember the event – and to further protest the government’s response – thousands of marchers filled the streets of Hong Kong as the anniversary neared. It was a major event and nearly all of the news networks covered it throughout the day.
China’s CCTV, however, did not. Its evening newscast not only ignored the events in Hong Kong, but also made no mention of the Tiananmen Square anniversary.
I wasn’t surprised.
CCTV is the Chinese government’s broadcaster, so you can be sure that it will not air a news report on any topic contrary to the government’s point of view. The Chinese Communist Party uses CCTV’s English language channel for public relations purposes (or for propaganda, depending on your point of view).
So how does this story relate to a thesis?
During a previous semester at West Texas A&M, I served on a thesis committee in which the graduate student (who was from China) was examining how Chinese audiences respond to a particular television program. Part of his thesis included a history of CCTV. However, it lacked consideration of CCTV’s problems with censorship.
This raised some questions for me that I have yet to answer. On one hand, a solid academic thesis would require some analysis of CCTV’s problems with forthright journalism. On the other hand, I presume anyone in China can read his thesis. Could that analysis cause problems for a Chinese citizen who was returning to China to begin his new career? Another of my Chinese students, when asked for her thoughts on this question, answered “yes.”
How does a faculty member – or a thesis committee – balance the desire for a thorough thesis against the desire to protect a student from potential political and personal retribution, particularly when that student plans to settle down back home?
I kept my recommendations intact, but this issue still nags me. Perhaps I’ve exaggerated any possible repercussions such research might cause for him because I’m still not familiar with how closely China might be paying attention to its thousands of citizens who get an education in America. However, I’m keenly interested in any points of view readers are willing to share.
Butler Cain is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at West Texas A&M University. He is a member of SPJ’s Journalism Education Committee.