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September 9, 2002

Freshman seminar highlights media, politics

By Eric Rangus

The relevance of a freshman seminar titled “News Media and International Crisis” is easily apparent. What may be a bit surprising is that the idea for the class is more than 10 years old.

While working as a reporter in China for The Christian Science Monitor, Sheila Tefft was struck by how journalists and diplomats relied on the local press for political insight. This was necessary because the government was so closed. Tefft saw that policymakers used and influenced the media, and vice versa.

With the advent of new media technologies, the higher profile of 24-hour-news channels and practically instantaneous (and sometimes shoddily edited) news available on the Internet, the interplay of the media and world affairs, as well as an understanding of the process, has only become more complicated.

Throw in the terrorist attacks of last September and how they irrevocably changed the world and the media that cover it, and Tefft, director of the journalism program, has a recipe for one of the most fascinating freshman seminars on campus this fall.

“What I’m hoping is that the students get so hooked on this material that they will pursue it outside of class on their own,” Tefft said.

Prior to entering academia Tefft was a working journalist, having written not only for The Christian Science Monitor, but also The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Chicago Tribune. For The Christian Science Monitor, Tefft worked as a foreign correspondent for 12 years from bureaus in New Delhi, India, Bangkok, Thailand and Beijing. She also has been to Afghanistan four times.

While News Media and International Crisis is unmistakably a journalism class, it falls under Interdisciplinary Studies since the journalism program did not have a class designation for a freshman seminar this year. That administrative glitch will be remedied next year.

While the media’s coverage of Sept. 11 will certainly be a significant area of study, it is not the only one. Tefft also will lead her students in an investigation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and there will be comparisons of U.S. and world media, as well as a detailed section on press issues raised by the war on terrorism.

Tefft said it is important for students to study the interdependence of media and politics so that they will be provided the tools to contribute to what will be an ongoing debate.

“There are few careers where you won’t rely on the media or interact with it,” she told the class. “This is a fascinating area, full of colorful people who often act heroically.”

The class, which includes students from Kenya, Taiwan and Turkey, will be utilizing a textbook—The World News Prism by William Hachten—but a majority of the class materials will be handouts. Students are required to subscribe to either The New York Times or The AJC, and will be responsible for reading both papers.

Guest speakers will play a major role in the seminar’s content. Tefft has lined up journalists who work for CNN, CNN International and The Financial Times of London. She also has scheduled a trip to the offices of The AJC to meet with the editor of the paper’s new “World Today” section.

Not all of the class’ guest speakers will come from outside Emory. Nick Fotion, professor of philosophy, will discuss military ethics and freedom of speech issues regarding the often frosty relationship between the media and the armed forces.

Since international media are also a prime focus of the seminar, the class will be able to participate in a teleconference with journalism students at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

“I’m going to ask you what every journalist is asked to do,” Tefft told the class about an hour into their first meeting, Sept. 3. “Despite your emotions, look at things in as critical and balanced a way as you can.”

What followed was a critical but balanced discussion of headlines from several newspapers around the country and the world from Sept. 12, 2001. Judging by the responses from the seminar’s 15 members, this year’s crop of freshman is quite savvy when it comes to the media.

One student noted that The New York Times used the more local term of “Twin Towers” to describe the World Trade Center. Several students quickly pointed out the difference between a headline “Act of War” in the San-Jose Mercury News and the same phrase without quotation marks in the small newspaper, The Day, of London, Conn. By attributing the phrase the San Jose paper took a measured approach, while the Connecticut daily printed the statement as a fact.

Tefft also brought in examples of newspapers from Australia and Great Britain to show how the attacks were viewed internationally, and tabloid-leaning U.S. papers, whose bold type and exclamation points gave still another view on the subject.