Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

School of hard knocks: journalism is about learning to separate fact from opinion

Keith Richburg, the new head of the University of Hong Kong’s media studies centre, appears to be the right man to train our next generation of reporters

I am not much of a believer in journalism schools. An aspiring reporter with a degree in the humanities or sciences will not suffer any drawback or handicap compared to a journalism graduate. Better, a person with a professional qualification in engineering, law or accounting may even be better equipped to deal with news stories that involve highly technical details.

In most cases, the tricks and skills of the journalistic trade, humble as it is, can be learned on the job. So, is it worth getting a journalism degree if you want to be a journalist?

A good education, in any field, is hard to come by. It involves a happy coincidence of an inspiring teacher, like-minded peers and an interesting subject. Journalism is no different. Like any good education when it happens, journalism can discipline your mind and train you to approach the world in a certain way. For lack of better words, I would say it has to do with a rigorous distinction between facts and values.

I am reminded of this from a Post interview with the new director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, Keith Richburg, a veteran journalist of The Washington Post.

“I see my job as to insulate the JMSC and our students from all these political currents swirling around. We’re about honest reporting and we’re about facts,” he said.

“I come with only one agenda: to make sure our students are imbued with the same values of objectivity, fairness, accuracy, fact-based reporting and rigorous attention to detail that I learned over 30 years with The Washington Post.”

I was expecting him to repeat platitudes like defending freedom of speech and of the press, and academic freedom blah, blah, blah. But no, he came through. The man is the real thing.

A major problem with a highly divisive society like Hong Kong is that too many parents, politicians and academics are only too happy to let young people get caught up in all those political currents.

They are being taught that something is true not because of facts and evidence but because it fits in with one’s preconceived notion or narrative.

Good journalism challenges this most dangerous of biases. Bad journalism perpetuates it.