I sometimes hear a claim made in Beijing academic circles for “Chinese journalism.” This posits that there is also something called “Western journalism,” and that both are circumscribed by orthodoxy. Is there actually such a thing as a separate field of journalism, East and West? What would it mean to say “Eastern journalism” to define the news industry from Mumbai to Seoul? These hemispheric labels become meaningless if what we are talking about is a profession with a set of standards we recognize.

What is meant by Western journalism within China is what most Chinese have casual access to: CNN, BBC or what can be culled from the firewalled Internet abroad using a Virtual Private Network to access blocked sites—which is plenty more than there was when I first went to China in 1992. But it still only touches a small segment of what is available and does not define the whole.

There is no one thing we can agree on as Western journalism. There is either journalism practiced with professional principles that we all recognize and understand to be the best methods of verification, or there is not. It’s like physics. Physical laws are universal. You can’t have “Chinese physics” (physics with only Chinese characteristics) and still call it a scientific discipline.

There is a separate discussion that I sometimes have with journalists in China about how far our practices in America are from our principles, historically, and in the era of finding new models to replace advertising in corporate media structures (which more often now means combining advertising and self-promotion with editorial). Chinese readers are not blind to our struggles to find a new formula to generate revenue, and their accusations of corporatism should be taken as seriously as our blanket assessments of authoritarian media in a state-run system.

A Healthy Skepticism

In an e-mail with the subject line “hi,” I received this note from a Tsinghua University student named Weijun:

Professor Mott. You’ve said that “journalism is to seek truth from facts.” But don’t you think that what the media give us are opinions, not facts? Since prejudices are unavoidable in the reports of news. So maybe there are neither truth nor facts, and journalism is about making “facts” and selling opinions and henceforth influencing people?

I am looking forward to your interpretation of this.

This is the kind of independent critical thinking students in China are often thought by outside observers to lack, but Weijun had the requisite skepticism to be a good reporter. I replied that ideally there should be no quotation marks around facts; how facts are gathered and interpreted is the issue, not whether they are atomic truths; and that to arrive at the facts, more than one source is needed. To echo Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, the key theory in reporting the news is that of proportion. Enough information is needed to determine the truth, and the news must be comprehensive, not artificially balanced or fair. Facts are the test of truths, not the other way around.

Weijun’s question is really one of trust. Trust in the media she consumes. Where does she turn to get her news from within China? Her distrust comes from growing up in a non-pluralistic media environment where journalists are not protected by professional organizations and the rule of law. Chinese journalists must equivocate to an authoritarian structure, they are asked to self-censor, and their analysis is circumscribed by an institutional order where independent reckoning is suspect. Her distrust also comes from the Chinese brand of authoritarian capitalism in new media markets whereby state news organs are increasingly asked to support themselves with advertising instead of Communist Party patronage. This has led to confusion. The irony is rich here; unlike the current U.S. markets, ad revenues that support Chinese state media enterprises are growing apace with China’s robust economy.

Weijun’s distrust of journalism “selling opinions and henceforth influencing people” is healthy. It means she is ambivalent about the information she has access to on both sides of the Pacific. It comes from her intelligence to know the difference between the presumption of objectivity—“fair and balanced”—and the reality of selling the news. Imagine someone in the U.S. watching Fox News as his or her sole source of information, or, if all the information one consumed in The Nation served only to reinforce a prejudicial point of view. Just because there is a free press doesn’t mean everyone within reach of the First Amendment will use it, legislate for it, or that we can hang on to it without legal protection and a new revenue model.

The Meaning of Truth

Having a free press enshrined in the Bill of Rights benefiting all Americans doesn’t mean we will use information as effectively as Weijun does from China, or that the majority of Americans even desire such abundance of news and information and are willing to pay for it. Weijun is casting her net wide enough to get the facts wherever she can find them, instead of settling for the “truth.” This discussion of journalistic truth between a student and her professor may seem like esoteric territory, but it is just one example of the kinds of cultural specifics that are called into question by Chinese students. We are mistaken if we think the truth is monolithic, rather than a process of untangling disputed facts. To quote the poet Robert Frost on the subject: “Fact is the sweetest dream labor knows.” Journalistic truth is a process of gathering facts scientifically, built over time.

But sticking to the facts was not the issue for my graduate students, by and large. They were being trained as business reporters, and their job was “just the facts” of crunching numbers and processing financial data. To this I introduced a seminar in opinion and commentary, and we wrote narrative journalism in another course, using the same fact-based principles, but with different designs on their writing.

The issues we looked at included whether editorials in the People’s Daily could even be called opinion given the interchangeable commentary and stated purpose of the newspaper as the house organ for the Communist Party—whose aim is to communicate the central government’s policies to the provincial leadership. This particular project came out of a student thesis. She began with the observation that the bylines were interchangeable, there being no independent and personal opinion expressed in the People’s Daily—a sort of reverse of The Economist. Other topics were the role and opinions of the ombudsman at The Washington Post and whether the Internet needs public editors. Editorial writers from the student’s home country (or province) and from the U.S. were followed throughout the semester and scrutinized as models. Each student wrote their own pieces, some of which were published. We also looked at Chinese complaints of bias in The New York Times, and discovered less that there is unstated bias inside of the ideological spectrum, than that there is, in Chinese eyes, a distrust of the presumption of impartiality.

While there are real cases of bias against China in some Western reporting, much of the confusion lies in the misattribution of editorial writing as newsgathering by Xinhua (the state news service) and others in the Chinese press. There is almost never a distinction made for readers between a quote from the editorial page and the objective reporting of a front-page news story. Nothing new, really, since quotes from editorials are cropped out of context for harangues East and West, but there is rarely a wasted opportunity to discredit journalistic ethics by Western reporters and a perceived bias against China. The key tool of propagandists is a lack of distinction between what is commentary/opinion/editorial writing and what is newsgathering; they are conflated with predictable results. This is made more difficult because in Europe these distinctions are not made in the same way as in the U.S.—another reason why the term “Western journalism” is useless, except as agitprop.

Looked at simplistically, the purpose of journalism in China is to advance the official aims of the government, preserve security and social stability, and not undermine the leadership of the Communist Party; whereas, in the U.S. there is the watchdog role of the press, the idea that we should be speaking “truth to power.” Clearly, it doesn’t work out so neatly for either hemisphere, and in an era of media consolidation and corporatism “speaking truth to power” doesn’t work very well without an alternative media to pick up the cause when the credentialed media fails.

One of the top questions I would get from journalism students around China was whether so-called citizen journalism is going to replace traditional journalism as a profession. Drilling down, this is a question of self-interest; they face a media environment that won’t be able to employ them or allow them to use principles they’ve come to acknowledge as necessary for a reformed society. Compare this with American J-schools, where students must be entrepreneurial and principles of journalism are evolving along with new media alliances between editorial and a revenue base.

For my Tsinghua students, most of them had to have goals other than journalism. The rewards for a journalist in China are not very tenable. There is a high attrition rate and low pay. Add to this the single child who is expected to support her parents in addition to raising a family of her own. For most of my students, journalism will be the fallback to more lucrative careers where they can use the same skills. If students can’t find a job at a PR firm or get a government job, then the alternative choice is to become a reporter and track to an editor’s position. If their dream of working for the Xinhua News Agency doesn’t come through, most will regret not getting a stable government position but won’t be heartbroken over not becoming a reporter. I met only a few newshounds in the journalism department at Tsinghua. There were at least two student suicides on campus the year I was there, but no one reported them in the student paper, or rather, dared to challenge the status quo in a public forum and jeopardize their own future. But I had the privilege of working with several students who had the potential to become superb journalists, if they choose to go into the profession and if the odds are on the side of talent.

Expanding Possibilities

How different this was from my first experience teaching in China some 15 years earlier, when even the best instruction could not hope to change a student’s circumstances, where a student’s possibilities to express herself were limited by the small potential reach for the products of her imagination. Casting a backward glance over his own career, the poet and journalist Walt Whitman wrote something that comes to mind here, with my intended punning on the term faculty: “Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only.”

The phrase “Seek truth from facts” was popularized by Deng Xiaoping, (though it originates earlier in Chinese philosophy, and it is just as often attributed to Chairman Mao). I often began lectures with Deng’s phrase, “????” in the original, to express a tenet of journalism. As a slogan, it is facile and fits neatly as a lecture opener but says nothing of how we reason or source those facts. By using this phrase, my hope was for students to see that journalism doesn’t need to serve any corporate or state notion of the truth—something we may take for granted but shouldn’t—and that essentially, reporters are a guild society the world over. We are mostly in agreement on the fundamental principles, but we must acknowledge that journalism is a challenge to orthodoxy. Ideally, I tell them, reporters rely on methods that make it possible to practice newsgathering as an objective discipline within the subjective prejudices of the writer, and that they are something akin to scientists of facts.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment