Thursday, January 3, 2008 | 12:00 AM EST - 12:00 AM EST

How do academics and journalists write about China? How might they draw upon each others’ work in order to give Americans a more accurate picture of developments – current and historical – in China? Jeff Wasserstrom, professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine, moderated a panel discussion between two academics and two journalists in Washington, DC on January 3, at a program cosponsored by the National Committee and the Historical Society for Twentieth-Century China. The panelists were Susan Lawrence, former Beijing bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review; John Pomfret, editor of the Washington Post’s Outlook section; Kellee Tsai, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University; and Timothy Weston, associate professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Panelists used the recent 17th Party Congress as an example of some of the differences between academic writing and news reporting. A search of recent U.S. news and wire services articles about China indicated that there were relatively few reports on the 17th Party Congress, as compared with articles on China’s economic growth or the upcoming Beijing Olympics. Yet China-watchers in academic circles focused a great deal of attention on the Congress and have already generated articles and preliminary analysis about the event. One reason for the contrast, journalists explained, may be that this type of event is outside the experience of the audience of a typical newspaper, even though it is deeply important. Without a human interest angle, this type of story generally will not resonate with an American audience, even though it is deeply important. It can be more effective to use a focus on a particular individual to tell the bigger story of Party leadership and succession.

Academics indicated they would like to see journalists frame current news report in a broader context (for instance, providing some examples of difficulties in labor law enforcement, not simply saying it isn’t being adequately enforced) or a comparative context (i.e., showing the experience of other countries at similar stages of development). Journalists said they could benefit from readier access to the wealth of research conducted by academics; often, they find out about an interesting study only by accident and too frequently the outcomes of academic research projects do not receive sufficient attention.