September 1996

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Teaching International Reporting Through the Internet

By Christopher Harper

About three years ago, I arrived in Kiev in the Ukraine with a team from ABC's news magazine 20/20. As usual, the flight from Moscow departed a few hours late, so we arrived at the hotel after 2:00 a.m. When I got to my room, I could not find the light switch. In the moon's glow, I saw a television set. I turned it on for some light and from the television came the voice of James Earl Jones: "This is CNN International."

Only a few years before, not only would it have been impossible to receive the CNN program, it would have been illegal and definitely unsafe in the Ukraine. The collapse of the Soviet Union is only one of many changes on the international landscape. In the past, many international stories could be written in terms of the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, it's not as simple as it used to be for the foreign correspondent.

The difficulty in teaching international reporting is twofold: bringing the professor's experience from the field into the classroom without retelling "war" stories that have little relevance for today's students and realizing the actual international "classroom" is a long way away. In the past, the approach at New York University was to use the United Nations for reporting international events. Columbia University encourages its international reporting students to concentrate on the ethnic communities of the city to understand the diversity of the international beat. Neither approach seemed satisfactory. So I tore apart the NYU ^ course, and started from the Internet up.

I was unable to find any significant text on teaching international affairs. There are many volumes on teaching foreign languages and about foreign correspondents. So I consulted colleagues on a moderated discussion group, Casenet, that uses case studies in teaching international affairs. The Web site, "Active Learning in International Affairs," is headed by Lev Gonick of Arizona State University. Through this group I was able to better understand how ^ case studies would enable me to address the overall strategy of the course. The group provides syllabi, case studies and connections to other international study groups.

The purpose of this study was to determine how effectively the Internet and World Wide Web can be used in teaching international affairs reporting. First, how did the students react to the case study method derived from the Internet? Second, how integrated did the Internet become in the stories they produced? Third, did the students find the electronic approach more or less useful than the traditional approach?

The course, "International Affairs Reporting," is a graduate class that has a maximum of 15 students. The students in the spring semester of 1996 came from a wide range of countries--Brazil, Pakistan, China, the Philippines, Cambodia and the United States. Two visiting professors from Rostov, Russia, also took the class during their stay in a joint program with NYU.

Reactions from Students

Of the 12 students who replied to a ^ survey, eight rated the course and the professor in the top 10 percent of courses ever taken; two students rated the course and the professor in the top 30 percent; and two students rated the course and the professor as about average. Only one student specifically cited the use of the Internet as an important tool learned during the course, while another student questioned the case study method as a useful means of teaching.

Integration of the Internet in Stories

When I followed up with specific questions about the use of the Internet to the students, it became much clearer how they used the information obtained during the class, particularly in writing assignments.

One student, Bland Crowder, investigated French attitudes toward international criticism of the country's nuclear testing program. A fluent French speaker, Crowder joined three listservs to seek information about the testing program. A few people wrote back with useful comments about criticisms. Somewhere between 100 and 200 replies--some of which attacked Crowder's intentions in posting his questions--a "flame" in Internet parlance. "A drawback seems to be that many respondents are computer undergraduates," Crowder writes. "I got one guy who recommended that I improve my French."

Another student, Maria Katherine Creag, found the Internet exceedingly useful in preparing a story about mail-order bride companies in London. "It saves me money over the Web, and it's interesting," she writes. "Also it seems that people who are interviewed via email tend to write more than expected."

Sophana Meach, a Fulbright scholar from Cambodia, uses the Internet extensively and plans to teach the skills he learned at NYU when he returns to Phnom Penh. "I use email to contact sources to get and confirm information and interview people," Meach writes. "I use email to contact experts to learn about specific issues or technical issues.... I use telnet (a tool of the Internet) to connect to a remote computer to get information or files I need. I use Lexis and Nexis to get daily news from my country and can search all information we need. As for Netscape and the World Wide Web, I use it to read newspapers from my country, which I can get it faster than subscription through the post office. I can almost obtain all sorts of information I need. I can read New York Times on the Net and save 60 cents. I can read CNN news if I missed any specific program."

Another student, Michael Park, found he did not use the Internet extensively, primarily because he lacked sufficient computer skills and "partly because the sites that I did find about my interests tended to be little more than pretty guidebooks."

Evaluation of Electronic Approach

Clearly the Internet and the World Wide Web are already having an impact on the ability of students and educators to communicate with one another throughout the world. The same holds true with the ability to communicate easily with international experts and the body politic of other countries.

Overall, the students liked the approach of case studies found through the Internet and the World Wide Web. While some of the students used the Internet extensively during their research, only one student cited the Internet usage as an important and critical part of the course. Unfortunately, the study involves a small sample and is based somewhat on anecdotal material. Further studies should be conducted on the use of the Internet in the classroom to determine whether cyberspace can be used effectively to teach international relations. [TOC]


Christopher Harper ( is an associate professor in the department of journalism at New York University, where he teaches international affairs and computer-assisted reporting. He worked with Newsweek in Washington and Beirut, and with ABC News in Cairo, Rome and New York. His book, And That's the Way It Will Be: News in the Digital Age, is scheduled to be published by New York University Press in September 1997.

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