US v. China: Journalism edition

Is it time to write this post?

The recent Bloomberg News controversy — that reporters in China have had their stories spiked because it would mean bad news / loss of money for Bloomberg LP — is making waves because it reneges on two of the most important tenets of Western journalism:

  1. Maintaining independence: “Independence” in journalism used to mean that you are not beholden, or loyal, to any person or organization. These days, it’s becoming to mean that you are not beholden to money and moneyed interests. You are supposed to serve the truth and the greater good. But how do you report the truth when all the people with money these days seem to have a different agenda? Even journalism needs funding.
  2. Creating transparency: Like moneyed interests, those with power work best by keeping things in the dark. Journalism is there to shed some light on things.

Enter China, a very mysterious land whose inner machinations are buried deep beneath the surface, but also a place so flushed with cash and with a definite agenda. Can journalism operate in such an environment? It has seemed less and less likely over the past couple of years, as several reporters have not been able to renew their visas and media websites are blocked. But before, at least it was China blocking journalism. Now, it’s a media company doing it to itself, all for the sake of appeasing the Chinese government so it can maintain profits. Journalism may be losing out all the time to corporations in the U.S., but capitulating to China? China’s our frenemy! It needs to be watched more than the corporations, or something.

Now, it’s true that Bloomberg is kind of in a pickle. It’s a hard spot to be in, and it’s a trade-off every media company makes every day. China has a lot of money, but it’s nutty about how you portray it. Do you write puff pieces so you can get access (and money), or do you write one hard-hitting, award-winning piece and get banned forever? As you can probably guess, China is a really tough place to do proper journalism. Not only is there the usual clash of cultures, but their entire approach to journalism is completely different. News coverage is still largely state-directed, and the boundaries are always just a little fuzzy on purpose. There is a lot more independence than there was in the 1980s, but repression techniques have also gotten a lot more sophisticated — in fact, the censorship is actually less draconian in the usual ways people imagine. Yes, there are obvious off-limit topics (Tibet, Tiananmen) and ways you can report on certain issues (Taiwan, e.g.). But you can also report on “negative” issues like pollution, food safety, dissidents and corruption. Depending on the issue, there is a wide or narrow berth for how they can can be approached. It’s not always written down in a manual or directive, but it’s pretty easy to figure out what can be said and what should be left unspoken.

Then there’s the phenomenon of the rampant reusing and re-purposing of already published stories. In the U.S., we have our news aggregators and social media sites that will repost popular stories for pageviews and clicks*. In China, it’s done by virtually all media companies, big and small, and especially those that are state-owned. China is the largest echo chamber in the world, in part because it’s full of people, but also because of its state-directed media. In part, stories are reposted to maximize content and thereby drive up pageviews. Flimsy copyright laws make it pretty safe to do. But clicks and content aside, there is this eerie feeling that it’s mostly done because it is safe. No matter how badly written or un-newsworthy (by Western standards) a story may be, it will be run — over and over and over. Why? Because if a story has already been published, it means that it’s probably already been vetted by a “censor.” If in the U.S. editors vet stories for their accuracy and newsworthiness, then editors in China must vet stories to make sure they are non-offensive to the Party. So if you’re a publisher, why not just publish the most innocuous things you can find? What’s innocuous? Boring things that have already been said and that haven’t been branded sensitive. Sometimes you must forgo informing the readers — which brings me to my next point.

In J-school, we’re always being told to think of the readers. What do they know? What don’t they know? What do they need to know? What would they like to know? And most importantly, what is the easiest, most efficient way to explain everything to them? Communication is always about making it easy for the receiver to grasp the communicator’s main ideas. Not so in China, where readers are often secondary to other considerations, such as the Party’s well-being and the writer’s own image. In fact, the more confused a reader is, the smarter the writer seems. The writer doesn’t write to educate the reader: He writes to show off his intellect. So forget making a logical, well-reasoned argument or point — just write down a bunch of disassociated facts, make some far-flung connections, and don’t bother to explain what any of it means. Besides, a confused reader won’t cause any trouble, politically.

These are probably the two biggest frustrations when working with the Chinese media. Western reporting on China may be far from perfect itself — it certainly has its own biases — but if China gets its way, we may be reduced to understanding it through the filters of the CPC’s information machine. That’s not to say that I discount or distrust China’s own viewpoints, as I certainly defer to domestic sources for various news; but as I said earlier, they are not always written with a Western audience in mind or with the analysis and depth required. China is the world’s second-largest economy, on the verge of becoming a superpower, and yet it remains a mystery to many of us in the West. It could be our biggest competitor or our biggest partner. I, for one, would rather have myriad sources — Chinese and foreign — documenting in every which way how this country is truly progressing.

Gady Epstein writes in the Economist about the effects of Chinese government pressure on foreign journalism here, and Evan Osnos writes in the New Yorker about the costs of covering China here.

*I’m not condoning this practice, although I am an unabashed Gawker reader.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *