June 7, 2011 — Eleven Chinese journalists learned the true meaning of being in the right place at the right time on May 1, when President Obama announced to the world that U.S. Navy Seals had killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The group from Shanghai was in the United States taking part in the University of Virginia's inaugural "News Media in America" workshop at the Northern Virginia Center when the bin Laden news broke. They would spend the next 12 hours doing something they had never done before: covering a breaking news story from the U.S.
Yang Jian, 24, a reporter for the Shanghai Daily, first saw the news on Sina.com, China's most popular social network site. She quickly contacted her editor in Shanghai and was told to begin filing reaction pieces.
In an adjoining room, 27-year-old David Chen, an associate producer for the English-language International Channel Shanghai, was watching television.
"After the announcement, we decided to go to the White House," he said. "So we rushed there, talking to students, servicemen and even a Muslim woman to look for diversified voices and opinions."
Racing against Metrorail's midnight closing, the journalists arrived at the White House early Monday morning. Armed with still and video cameras, audio recorders and smartphones, they waded into the jubilant crowd of Americans, who were waving flags and chanting "USA! USA! USA!"
Yang said he was "impressed by a Howard University student who said they were not there to celebrate someone's death, but to celebrate the unity of the country's people."
It was the last day of the workshop in the D.C. area, so Yang packed his bags and took the Metro to Rosslyn for the last workshop meeting with Bob Ranson, who co-taught the course with Dr. Dan Driscoll, director of U.Va.'s Northern Virginia Center.
For Chen, the news from Pakistan provided another major peak when his producer asked him to report live on his channel's main news program, "Shanghai Live." A rooftop location was secured on I Street overlooking the White House and shortly after 9:30 a.m. EDT – 9:30 p.m. in Shanghai – Chen did his first live news story from Washington.
After signing off, he joined his colleagues and nine Shanghai government information officials for a final site visit to a D.C.-area media outlet, the studios of Washington's WJLA-7 and NewsChannel 8, where they watched how reporters were preparing and reporting on local reaction to bin Laden's death.
Chen said the course inspired him to integrate new media into his reporting.
"Thanks to the workshop, I do feel the push that we must get involved right now instead of in the near future. Bob and Dan showed us a lot of new media applications and information," he said. "And when touring media sites, we do see how closely the traditional media business is running with the new media part. That's exactly what we can work with in our own media."
At noon, the journalists boarded a bus for New York City for a previously scheduled stop before heading home to China.
"Timing is everything in journalism," Driscoll said. "The visits to NYC, Ground Zero and The Associated Press were planned in advance. It just turned out to be more than great timing. It became a perfect coda to an amazing 10 weeks as guests of U.Va."
The course featured 20 journalism speakers, including reporters from the Washington Post, Boston Globe, CNN and Newsweek. It is one of many new programs involving Shanghai, Jiangsu Province, and U.Va.'s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and Curry School of Education.
A second "News Media in America" workshop takes place this fall, along with an 11-week program in Charlottesville for faculty from several Chinese colleges and universities and a two-month program on culture and arts in America. This summer, 300 undergraduate students from Jiangsu are attending seminars at the Northern Virginia Center on graduate school education in the United States.
Fudan University assistant journalism professor Deng Jianguo also participated in the workshop.
"I strongly believe with this initial successful workshop, you have made a very good beginning, and surely there will be many more exciting work-togethers to come," he said.