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Power through the press



John Jirik

In the late 1980s John Jirik came down with a case of typically Australian wanderlust. Fascinated by alternative political systems and cultural differences, Jirik headed to China and then the Soviet Union. His travels never stopped.
Eventually his experience would inform his dissertation at The University of Texas at Austin and form the basis of research he’s carrying out at Lehigh as an assistant professor of journalism and communication and member of the Globalization and Social Change Initiative (GSCI).

At the heart of Jirik’s research is how power operates in and through media. His most recent work draws on a case study of a Beijing newsroom at China’s national TV network. Jirik spent more than two years working at and observing CCTV-9, the 24-hour English-language news channel of China Central Television. He was one of two foreigners who served on a committee set up in 2003 to redesign CCTV-9 for its relaunch in 2004 as CCTV International.

“They were interested in my perspective on how to build a news channel,” Jirik says. “They wanted to know what I thought would work globally. We were open and honest and quite combative on how to do the news.”

CCTV-9 drew from Jirik’s expertise, which he gained as a television news producer at Reuters and as a translator and assistant desk editor at NBC – positions he held while living and working in the USSR, Russia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Jirik’s case study has presented information on how a nation is imagined through television. “The Chinese government has a project to bolster its image,” he says. “Television is the most important outlet for its image campaign.”

Additional research that has stemmed from his work includes the relationship between commercialization and democratization of media. Today, advertising funds television in China. However the result might seem counterintuitive. "The government’s role has actually been strengthened. But the knowledge produced is questionable,” he adds.

Jirik notes that Chinese journalists are committed to telling the story and providing hard-hitting news. “Despite government control, there is pressure for reform from below,” he says. “They’re aware of even the tiny difference they might be making.”

The next step in this project is to compare global news channels such as Al Jazeera, BBC, CCTV-9 and CNN.

Jirik left the media industry because he wanted to look at it from the outside, while understanding an insider’s perspective. Jirik sees media as integral to the global power system. He felt he had become part of the problem of global media serving, rather than critiquing, power. After completing his Ph.D. in Austin last spring, he came to Lehigh where he teaches critical thinking about media and investigates global trends in journalism in search of solutions for a better-informed world.

Jirik’s expertise has also been tapped by the GSCI, to which he was jointly appointed. The initiative brings together teaching, research and service at Lehigh on the historical, social, cultural, economic and political changes brought about by globalization.

“Academia is not just a place for thinking,” he says. “It’s not just for reflection on knowledge but for action.”

--Tricia Long


Posted on Monday, January 19, 2009

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