Younger journalists, self-censorship & other newsroom trends

I 2010 I attended an International Media Conference along with hundreds of journalists from a staggering array of Asia-Pacific countries including Myanmar, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, China, US, Taiwan, Australia, Japan, Singapore and Nepal.

I travelled to the conference with financial support from the Asia NZ Foundation, which aims to strengthen awareness in New Zealand of Asian economic and political issues and to encourage networking. I’m grateful for the support and can attest that my awareness was indeed raised and some interesting connections were made.

The conference, organised by the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Center for Journalists and The University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, was a big themed event looking not only at media but also at economic issues in Asia and especially China. There were many plenary panels and smaller sessions and it was the kind of event that leaves one a little more knowledgeable but in my case painfully aware of how little one actually knows.

What follows are a few general notes I made during the conference – points or themes that have stayed with me and/or that I managed to get down in my rumpty shorthand and decipher later. I have not, for now anyway, quoted many people directly here but you can see summaries, video highlights and full sessions for yourself here.

Journalists are getting younger

This is something that comes up fairly often in conversation about today’s newsrooms and I was interested to hear it come up a few times at the conference too. It appears commercial pressures, falling wages and other factors are driving the age of journalists down in all parts of the world, at the expense of long-term collective memory, specialist knowledge and the wisdom that comes from experience.

The first reference came from a newspaper editor in Myanmar who noted that as his country heads toward its first election in 20 years, its newsrooms are populated with young journalists who don’t remember anything of the 1990 election and have no experience in political or electoral coverage. That lack of experience is worrying, he said, although it is far from the only concern in a country where all news must be physically sent off for inspection before being published.

Thailand-based Burma activist and editor of Irrawaddy Magazine, Aung Zaw, spoke passionately about human rights abuses and lack of freedom in Burma and what kind of catalyst the election might prove to people frustrated by decades of military rule with no sign of meaningful change.

“Many people believe this election is only to legitimise military rule,” he said, and there are predictions that there will be fraud, intimidation and rigged ballots to that end.

Zaw writes about what conference guest speakers Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, had to say here.

The issue of young journalists was also raised by Dr An Ran, a former Nieman Fellow and senior science editor at China Newsweek, who mentioned the younger age of many health reporters in China and said they would benefit from greater experience and training given the complexities of public health reporting.

Thai elections by the numbers

Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior editor and columnist with The Nation in Thailand and a highly entertaining speaker, gave us a synopsis of Thailand in numbers: Since 1922, Thailand has had 18 constitutions, 27 prime ministers, 56 governments, 17 coups, 15 years of military rule and 25 elections.

He spoke about, among other things, elections and how important they were to Thailand, and about the rural-urban divide and the tendency for politicians to promise voters “free education, free healthcare, village funds, pension funds” and “find the money later”. Sound familiar? You can see him in action in Day One footage here.

Censorship and graft in China

There’s good news here and bad. The good news is that Chinese editors at the conference consistently made the point that the media is changing rapidly in China and while censorship remains there is vastly more diversity of opinion than 20 or 30 years ago and the central government is increasingly pragmatic about opening up the media. One said “I don’t think media in China is still an instrument of the State.”

The bad news is that local and regional government is less pragmatic, more likely to interfere with the media, and more likely to be influenced by big business with money to spend on pumping up some stories and burying others.

Panellists said some journalists were susceptible to bribes –  known as “money to seal up your mouth” –  and it was an issue for the media and other industries, although all the editors present were adamant they were opposed to graft and wouldn’t tolerate it. One audience member asked whether low wages in journalism prepared the ground for graft, but a panellist replied that in fact journalists’ wages weren’t that bad in China, “more middle class”.

Self-censorship

Again, an issue that pops up in media world over and one that came up several times in conversation at the conference.

At one end of the scale of self-censorship is a journalist who learns over time what the news editors like and writes to suit, or a sub-editor who instinctively writes a headline that fits with his or her paper’s mindset on the issue at hand.

At the other end are editors in China and elsewhere who must make a judgement call on any number of stories each day as to which may attract negative attention from authorities now or in the future – and figure out how to defend what they run.

Among the problems facing editors that I heard about were that reprisal could come at any time – within hours or months later – and there was no clear rule of thumb as to which stories were going to be problematic. You might run a critical story one day that invites no comeback at all while another which seems innocuous brings a rap months later.

One former editor told me how a staff reporter was once detained and questioned for days as a ‘message’ to the paper about a story run months earlier that displeased someone somewhere. You can never tell exactly what will displease, so it becomes easier to self-censor and steer clear of any potentially difficult material. Displeased authorities can make life difficult for editors in a variety of ways, not least by losing them their jobs.

The main drivers of change in China’s media

There was a strong message that the media is rapidly changing in China. The three main drivers of change identified by panellists were:

  • The internet – harder to control, faster, further reaching, changes people’s expectations. (See Asia NZ’s Charles Mabbett profile of Chinese blogging here.)
  • Private ownership – many new media companies are privately owned and the likes of Tencent, which runs the massively popular QQ messaging service along with blogging platforms and news portal (it has an editorial staff of 600 people), are listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. These companies are driven to do business in new ways and respond to what their customers want. (Charles Mabbett looks more closely at Tencent and other new media companies here.)
  • Pragmatic central government – understands times are changing, wants to retain credibility with populace, wants to open up albeit in a measured way.

Fan Yijin (former publisher of the Southern Media Group in China) said in his early days in the media – in 1970 at the “height of the cultural revolution” – there were just a few national newspapers and magazines and one newspaper per province, each tightly controlled and “of one voice”. In subsequent years as Deng Xiaoping started opening up China to the outside, so did the media start to open up.

Today there are thousands of publications, both state and privately owned, and millions of blogs and social networking accounts. Even with censorship and self-censorship, there are far more voices in the public arena than ever before.

In the intervening years editors saw problems they hadn’t seen before, Mr Fan said. “Social problems, growing gap between rich and poor, farmers who go into the city and sit in front of government buildings to protest… How were we to cover these?”

At first, he said, the government was nervous and banned coverage of these events for fear they would damage China’s image and that one report would lead to more reporters flooding in. But the government realised that “even if old media didn’t report, new media will, even if Chinese media don’t report, foreign media will.”

The government began to realise the value of open reporting and “resolved that all information should be open and go public quickly, in a timely manner”.

That process hasn’t been perfect but “there is progress”.

Earthquakes and seismic waves

The Sichuan earthquake in 2008 was cited several times as an example of a more open media in operation in China. Reporters from all over the country (and world) were allowed into the province and many were blogging and microblogging from the area ahead of filing their reports. This level of access was unprecedented.

On the flipside, Mr Fan acknowledged there was still dissatisfaction and there were still limits placed on journalists. A foreign journalist noted that she’d heard of at least one Chinese staff reporter ordered to leave the province once the story turned from disaster recovery to children dying in the ruins of poorly designed buildings.

On a free day I had wandering about in Guangzhou, a burgeoning city in the export corridor of southern China, I picked up a copy of the China Daily, a State-run English language paper, which carried screeds on the clean-up efforts after the more recent earthquake in Yushu County, Qinghai Province, which killed more than 2,000 people. Like all the other papers the day before, it was printed in black and white (with the exception of a red and gold flag at half mast on the front page) as a gesture of respect. Haven’t seen anything like that for a while.

The conference website has a record of the speakers.