Unknown unknowns

Every day, the editorial staff at the UK wonders: What are we writing about, why are we writing about it, and how are we writing about it? A weekly look behind the scenes.

Since the RUG’s hopes of opening a branch campus in China were announced in early 2015, I have had a new monthly ritual: Googling the Chinese characters for the words ‘Yantai’ (烟台) and ‘Groningen’ (格罗宁根), and checking the most recent news results that include those characters.

I’ll confess that I don’t speak/read/write/understand Chinese myself, but I have a few Chinese-speaking friends whom I send my findings to, in order to confirm that they make some sense (especially to make sure that the Google translate version, with phonetic translations of Poppema’s name as a common trait, closely resembles the Chinese text).

My monthly search took place last week, and I stumbled upon something interesting. China Agricultural University, the Chinese university that will be Groningen’s partner at the branch campus, had posted its own account of a working visit by a delegation of 25 RUG employees to hammer out the details – and the kinks – in the plans.

The report came complete with a photo gallery featuring RUG staff, ranging from the Board of Directors to employees of the Language Centre. We published the article right around the time that the delegation’s return flight was touching down in Amsterdam.

No idea

No one among the 25 staffers present in China, nor any members of the Yantai Steering Committee, shared this information in advance. We had to find it by happening across the news on a Chinese website. The sensation that the Chinese Internet was more open than communications within the university was disorienting, to say the least.

But the working visit wasn’t our only China-focused story last week. Underneath an article with arguably the most open praise we have published to date – literally a pros and cons list – Teunis Dokter, former member of the University Council representing Lijst Sterk, told us that we seem to have no idea what we’re doing over here when it comes to Yantai.

‘I have noticed that the Ukrant consistently places inaccurate or incomplete information about Yantai online’, he wrote. Painful as that is to hear, I would argue that if the information that we publish – which is always confirmed by as many informed sources as possible – could be accused of being incomplete or inaccurate, that could be attributed to the lack of information that we are granted access to in the first place.

Lack of access

The University Council hears the latest updates each month, but the topic is always discussed confidentially. That means that the reporter from the UK who is always present has to leave the room where it happens on the Boteringestraat.

‘There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know’, to quote my fellow American Donald Rumsfeld, in his eloquent answer to questions about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (they didn’t).

In the case of the Yantai plans, quite a few ‘unknown unknowns’ remain. If our coverage can be said to be lacking, it is not for lack of effort, but perhaps for lack of access.

Traci White, international editor




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