Newspaper Coverage Has Informed Global Readers of China’s Economic Ascendancy, Columbia Professor David French Tells Tsinghua Students

David French address students at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. (Photo by Rick Dunham)

    Newspapers in the United States deserve some credit for Americans’ increasingly positive views of China, Columbia University Journalism School Professor Howard French told Tsinghua University students on March 14.

 “The one thing that Americans know about China is that China has grown incredibly in the past 30 to 40 years,” said French, a former international correspondent for The New York Times and The Washington Post. “They learned that from the newspapers. They learned that from the American media.”

    While academic studies show that more U.S. news coverage of China is negative than positive, French said the media images of China’s economic transformation have endured. Indeed, a recent Gallup Poll showed that U.S. public approval of China is at its highest point since 1989 and has steadily improved each year since 2013.

  “Humanity is more powerful than any local identity,” French told students in Professor Shi Anbin’s cross-cultural communication course and other students from the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication and the Global Business Journalism Program.

    French, who speaks seven languages fluently, described his three-decade career as an international correspondent in China, Japan, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. During his years as a Shanghai-based New York Times reporter, French traveled to almost all of China’s provinces. He said he particularly enjoyed interacting with average people and seeing parts of the nation far from the burgeoning seacoast.

  “To be a good journalist, you have to learn a lot,” he said. “You have to do a lot of research. You have to get a lot of points of view. You have to talk to lots and lots of people.”

    He encouraged the students to pursue their professional passions. To improve their writing skills, he said they should “be a discriminating reader” and “look for good journalism to read.”

    French left journalism in 2008 to write books, and now teaches journalism at Columbia’s prestigious graduate school. French’s second book, “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power,” recently was published in paperback.

    While French said he enjoyed explaining the world to readers as a journalist, he now wants to focus on writing books, including an unpublished novel set in West Africa, where he began his journalism career. After finishing his first book in 2004, French came to a realization: “I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”