How to teach news literacy when the government is watching

The news literacy movement reaches Vietnam, but not without difficulties

Two years ago, Vietnamese journalist and lecturer Huyen Nguyen went with some colleagues to a news literacy workshop in neighboring Cambodia after applying, practically on a whim, through an invitation she found in her department’s mailbox. Having spent her career in a country where state propaganda is an official part of the journalistic mission, the workshop, sponsored by Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy (part of its global news literacy efforts), was eye opening.

“That is the first time my colleagues and I were actually aware of the fact that journalism and propaganda are completely different things,” says Nguyen, who teaches at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City. She has since dedicated her time to bringing news literacy to her home country with the help of a grant from the US Embassy in Vietnam and partnerships with the Youth Alumni Network & Vietnam Fulbright Network, the Vietnam Journalists Association, and several Vietnamese universities.

It hasn’t been easy. Putting together a news literacy workshop in Vietnam requires appealing to three different audiences: students, other journalists, and the government. And circumstances are not always in her favor.

Three days before a news literacy workshop she planned to hold this past summer at a university in Da Nang City, Huyen Nguyen received a phone call from her colleague. The workshop, she was told, was cancelled.

“I kept on asking her, ‘What is the reason? Can you tell me the truth about why they cancelled our workshop?’” Nguyen recounts. Eventually, another colleague confessed that, a few hours before Nguyen was told that the workshop was off, the police had requested a list of all registered students and, upon receiving it, had demanded that the university cancel.

While she has no way of confirming what really happened before the workshop in Da Nang, Nguyen says she has a hunch that some students on the list were viewed as potential political activists, and activism is forbidden in the country. Authorities might be especially sensitive in this region, because it is close to the disputed China Sea area. At a past workshop, a ground rule was that the conflict not be mentioned. There are also regions that are so sensitive to political action it’s taken her almost a year to get permission to organize workshops. Still others are not approved out of fear.

The setbacks haven’t deterred Nguyen or her colleague, Chau Doan, from pursuing the project. So far they have held three workshops at universities in Nha Trang, Da Lat, and An Giang, where the government even sent someone to the workshop. “He was actually there watching the workshop to make sure we don’t say anything wrong,” recalls Nguyen.

Doan, a young Vietnamese journalist, was inspired to join Nguyen’s news literacy project because she sees the dramatic change in consumption habits of young people as alarming. “It is no doubt that instead of newspapers or television, Facebook now becomes the first choice of most Vietnamese people to read and share,” she explains in an email, quoting statistics from Singapore-based digital PR firm WeAreSocial that document a nearly 200-percent increase in Vietnamese Facebook users (from 2.9 million to 8.5 million) between 2011 and 2012.

“Facebook users, even journalists and journalism students, do not actually know how to verify the accuracy of news before posting status or clicking ‘share’ button,” explains Doan.

Relatedly, Nguyen recounts a university and society-wide discussion taking place about then about how rampant tabloid news is in the lives of Vietnamese teenagers, and how difficult it is to help them distinguish between good and bad journalism.

“Newspapers in my country provide our young people with a lot of scandalous news about famous people,” she says. “We want to point them back to something more important, like the future of our country, the current situation of our economy, and what the most updated technology the world is using right now is.” News literacy fit the bill. Nguyen says that she uses what she learned from Stony Brook to explain to students how to check the reliability of the pieces they are reading.

Võ Hồng Na Uy, a recent graduate of An Giang University who goes by Nauy, signed up for the workshop out of curiosity and was fascinated by the discussion on distinguishing between different kinds of information.

“That really impressed me, because so far I just read newspaper or magazine without knowing purpose of each type,” he wrote to me in an email. “Hence, I know which one is good to get information (newspaper) and which is just for fun (entertainment), and which is not worth believing.”

Nguyen’s next workshop will take place later this month at her home university in Ho Chi Minh City, and so far, planning has gone smoothly. She cannot attend—she is in the midst of earning her doctorate at Ohio University and doesn’t have the money to fly back—but she used some of the Embassy grant money last year to develop a 100-page manual to guide Vietnamese news literacy teachers, and has also brought Rick Hornik, director of overseas partnership programs for the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook in to train other journalists and educators in the discipline.

“News literacy is not an official subject in any school in Vietnam,” says Doan. “Whenever we organized workshop, it is very difficult to find lecturers who both have realistic experience and academic knowledge about news literacy to share with students.” But thanks to Doan and Nguyen, that may well be changing.

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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Jihii Jolly is a freelance journalist and video producer in New York City