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Annenberg: South Africa internships introduce students to the real world of journalism

Annenberg students with examples of stories that ran in South African newspapers. From left, Eugene Tong, Shefali Srinivas, Julia Thornton and Victoria Cavaliere, with Journalism School Director Loren Ghiglione, foreground. Not shown are Sarah Brown and Douglas McKay.

Photo by Irene Fertik

A six-week internship at two newspapers in Cape Town, South Africa, solidified Sarah Brown’s passion for journalism, while Julia Thornton continues to question whether a career in journalism is in her immediate future.

Thornton and Brown, along with four other USC journalism graduate students and seven Emory University undergraduates, journeyed to South Africa May 13 to test what they had learned in the classroom against the real world of journalism.

“I like to think the South Africa program encourages students – especially American students, who can be a bit provincial – to understand and report the world,” said Loren Ghiglione, director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. “We feel this so strongly that the faculty is considering asking every graduate student in the School of Journalism, including the public relations sequence, to have a work experience abroad. As far as I know, ours would be the only journalism program in the country with this requirement.”

The 39 students entering the graduate journalism program this year have the opportunity to select London, South Africa, Mexico and Hong Kong as project sites for next summer.

“Working abroad can be a transforming experience,” Ghiglione said. “It requires students to examine their lives, confront the unknown and face the ‘other.’ The challenge is to get them to overcome biases and blind spots, to think in different ways than they would have if they had stayed here in their safe, comfortable world.”

In addition to Brown and Thornton, graduate students Eugene Tong, Douglas McKay, Shefali Srinivas and Vicky Cavaliere made the long plane trip from Los Angeles to Cape Town to work on the Cape Argus and Cape Times newspapers. Collectively, the students published 75 articles in three and a half weeks of writing time.

While this is the first year that graduate students from USC have traveled to South Africa, it is the third year Ghiglione has taken a group of students there.

“In addition to spending about a month writing breaking news and feature articles, students also spent about two weeks visiting significant spots – like Kruger National Park for game viewing; a platinum mine where 45 percent of the workers are HIV positive; Thulamela, an archaeological site; and Soweto – to get a sense of South Africa and its issues,” Ghiglione said.

In preparation for the internship, USC students were required to take a course on South African history, culture and journalism taught by Ghiglione. Former Los Angeles Times editor Michael Parks, CNN correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, former New York Times correspondent Ken Noble and Mansoor Jaffer, a newspaper editor from South Africa, helped teach the course.

“Students learned a little bit of Xhosa and Afrikaans, the languages that are important in Cape Town,” Ghiglione said. “They learned about the customs and the history of the various groups and the conflicts in the city. This information gave them a sense of urgency in terms of personal safety as well as the issues they would be covering as reporters.”

Newsroom culture is different as well, he said; in South Africa there is a greater tolerance for male editors and reporters who make sexually suggestive remarks to female reporters.

The internship helped Eugene Tong, 25, identify a possible career path in journalism.

“It gave me a taste for a career as a foreign correspondent,” Tong said. “I’ve always been interested in working overseas, and this was a good steppingstone. It was an opportunity that is unavailable anywhere else or in any other program I’ve come across.”

Tong, who will graduate with an M.A. in print journalism in May, is familiar with the adrenaline rush that comes from interviewing and writing about people caught in a crisis.

“Probably one of the biggest stories I worked on was a story about a fire that took the life of a mother and her month-old baby in one of the shanty townships in Cape Town,” Tong said. “I happened to speak with the husband of the deceased; he could barely talk. I had never dealt with that before. It was a powerful experience.”

The internship boosted Doug McKay’s confidence that he could report news from any corner of the globe.

“It was such a confidence builder,” said McKay. ” I had to get my bearings in a new town and place and learn how the society worked so that I could report it to the people who lived there.”

The internship convinced Julia Thornton that a career in journalism probably isn’t for her.

“I had doubts about the field before the internship,” said Thornton, who will graduate with a master’s in international journalism in December. “I went seeking clarity, and now I am somewhat more confused.”

Thornton, 25, said she observed media bias and sensationalism along with sloppy and careless reporting in the South African press, much of which is based on the British tabloid style of reporting.

“When you see how flawed the system there is, you begin to develop a stronger appreciation for how the press operates in the States,” she said. “At the same time, you recognize how vulnerable any society is to that type of journalism, thus underscoring the importance of adhering strongly to an ethical code of practice.”

She said the ethics class she took from journalism professor Bryce Nelson “was the most important class I have taken. There is no doubt in my mind that the journalism ethics course should be a required course.”

But the cultural shock Thornton experienced didn’t prevent her from writing a powerful column about the rape crisis in South Africa and about her reaction to overhearing a group of men talking about their desire to have sex with young girls.

“They did not know that I [had] just spent time with a couple of 14-year-old girls who had been raped,” Thornton wrote. “They did not know that I had never seen such sadness in a child’s face. … The interesting thing is that the group of men consisted of both blacks and whites. When the two men high-fived each other, it was a black hand meeting a white one – solidarity at the expense of little girls.”

While Thornton ponders her next step, Sarah Brown, a native of England, has landed a job as an international reporter for a financial magazine in London.

“I learned more in my eight weeks in South Africa than at any other time during the pursuit of my degree,” Brown said. “I have lost count of the number of people who have looked at my resume and been amazed at the things I have done. It’s a testament to people such as Loren [Ghiglilone] who believe that journalism students should be exposed to the world around them.”

Annenberg: South Africa internships introduce students to the real world of journalism

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