Foreign Journalists in Chinese State Media

Posted: November 14, 2012 in media
Tags: , ,

At the 18th Party Congress over the past week a mysterious Australian journalist has been called on at official press conferences more than any other foreign reporter.

In each of these golden opportunities, she’s lobbed disappointing softballs like, “Please tell us what policies and plans the Chinese government will be implementing in cooperation with Australia.”

ABC caught up with the reporter, Andrea Yu, and found out that she’s not quite a foreign reporter, but works for the majority Chinese-owned AMG, which “has close links to Chinese government-controlled media organizations and supplies Beijing-friendly radio programs to community stations in Australia.”

So it seems she’s little more than a CCP shill at the congress.

I think this raises some interesting issues about foreigners working for state-sponsored Chinese media. Here were a couple reactions that caught my eye on Twitter:

With a notoriously competitive media landscape in the West, getting a foot in the door through Chinese state media is a route many aspiring journalists take. I’ve been there. Indeed, several fantastic China correspondents have been there.

But when you work for state media, at what point do you cross a line where your journalistic integrity is compromised.

Some people would say it’s the moment you do any kind of work for them. This was certainly the theme of much of the hate mail I got when writing for Global Times (where I was once accused of “prostituting myself to a propaganda rag”). The thinking here goes that foreigners lend legitimacy to these biased and often misleading organizations. Any reporting that they do, whether it’s flattering or critical of China, is strategically used in order to meet broader propaganda objectives.

I completely disagree with this assessment. Despite what a lot of people seem to think, official outlets like China Daily, Global Times, CRI and even CCTV push the envelope quite often and are full of great journalists. Having foreigners in these organizations makes that envelope get pushed even further and improves the entire industry. And if a foreigner, from the bottom of their heart, believes they’re being completely honest in their reporting – whether it’s flattering or criticizing the party line – then I can’t see a problem with that.

It’s true that if you print something supporting the party line in Global Times, it’ll inevitably be held to a completely different standard than if it were in New York Times, but that’s the breaks. I don’t think journalistic integrity has been damaged in the least.

But Andrea Yu seems to have gone beyond that as a complacent party shill. Her role was to give the appearance that officials were bold enough to take a foreign reporter’s questions, when in fact, they knew they’d be getting a chance to flatter themselves. In this sense, Yu caused people to be misled – especially the Chinese who will never learn about her connection to the government. This is the opposite of what journalism is supposed to be.

Yu seems to be aware of her role. She told Wall Street Journal, “[Officials] know my questions are safe … I’m representing a Chinese-Australian company, so I need to ask questions they want me to ask. Believe me, I would have other questions to ask if I could.”

So she’s laid down her sense of journalistic duty and restrained herself from asking what she and her viewers would actually like answered. She’s too eagerly fallen into her role as a stooge, and thus, compromised her credibility.

But it’s easy to sit and condemn from afar. Being in her shoes is undoubtedly a much stickier situation than it seems. Here’s an excerpt from her interview with ABC:

STEPHEN MCDONNELL: But what do you think about it though? Do you feel that you’re being used in that way?

ANDREA YU: Well, it’s been a bit difficult because there are layers. When I first entered my company, there’s only a certain amount of understanding I have about its connections to the government. I didn’t know it had any, for example. So I find out more and more as time goes on. It’s quite difficult as a foreigner, when you first, at least for me in the last month, to know exactly because you get told things not all at the beginning, so that side of it is challenging.

This comes off as kind of air-headed and oblivious, but I understand the point she’s making. Some of my experiences and those of several acquaintances at Chinese companies (not just media) were just like this. It’s not as if you’re told up front what your real job and unethical responsibilities will be. It comes in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and in steps so small that it’s easy to descend into something you’d never intended. What seem like opportunities (ie – covering the biggest political event in China) are in fact situations where you’re being exploited. By the time you look around and realize what you’re doing, you’re in too deep and it’s hard to climb back out without seriously disrupting your life.

Yu could put her foot down with her bosses and go with her journalistic instincts (like the intrepid reporters over at Chinese Teenagers News), or better yet, take her services to another outlet. But that’s much easier said than done. Imagine doing that with your own job. And then imagine it’s in an ultra-competitive industry where you’re not sure you’ll get another break.

As Tom Hancock pointed out, Yu is in the state media coal mines. I doubt she ever made a conscious decision to head down the especially dark tunnel she ended up in. Unfortunately, she did end up there and compromised her credibility. But I think more than anything else she’s a victim of a cold system that’s all too happy to push people around like pawns in order to mislead the country and the world.

What do you think? At what point does a state media job become a liability for budding foreign journalists rather than an asset?

  1. […] 11/15, 12:26 am: Just saw that Eric Fish of Sinostand wrote about this too. I offer it here, including the following excerpt, as a counterweight to my […]

  2. C. Custer says:

    I do sympathize a bit with Yu’s position here, and as you say, most foreigners have found themselves in a similar position at one point or another. During my brief period of work as an English teacher, I once found myself at what I was originally told would be a class but ended up being the company wanting me to impersonate a British fertilizer executive. By the time I realized fully what was going on, it was already happening, and in the interest of keeping my job, I ended up doing it, although I did a rather intentionally shitty job of it and quit that gig fairly soon afterwards.

    That said, though, I think the ethical alarm bells have got to go off before the point where you’re asking questions of State leaders at the Party Congress. As you say, many good China reporters got their start in Chinese state media; but it’s also worth saying that many of those people left Chinese media jobs because they reached a point or a realization that what they were being asked to do was unethical (not to mention personally damaging). Very few of us get the opportunity to ask questions of State leaders, but I’d like to think that most people, if presented with the kind of opportunity Angela Yu was given, would hear the alarm bells and back out beforehand.

    That is, in essence, saying that she should have just quit her job on principle, which I realize is a lot to ask of anyone. But she must have realized what she was doing when she got the questions she was supposed to ask, if not before then, and at that point I think most aspiring journalists would think, ‘OK, this is obviously crossing a line that I can’t cross.’ And in the long-term, having crossed that line is probably going to be more damaging to her career than quitting her job would have been damaging in the short term (though I don’t know her financial situation so perhaps I’m wrong).

    Of course, all this discussion of Yu is sort of missing the forest for the trees. The forest is that the Chinese government is apparently looking to replace the foreign press with “foreign” “press” (at least to some extent) at official events. That’s not too surprising, but it is concerning.

  3. While I feel some sympathy for Andrea Yu, what she is doing is totally inappropriate and unethical. She is active in enabling censorship of genuine reporters and suppression of information. What would be the reaction if a major corporation only allowed questions to be taken from an employee of the company’s in-house newspaper?

  4. Shannon R says:

    I have also “been there” — specifically my time at the Beijing city government funded Beijing This Month. It’s a magazine which is supposed to “compete” with the big Engligh language (largely) foreigner-run foreigner-focused free magazine set.

    During my time there I insisted (against heavy opposition) that we run fair reviews of new restaurants. I argued that this made us more credible. I also published what I thought were fair reviews of several tourist sites in and around Beijing, rather than the bouquets which had been published earlier in the magazine’s history.

    I was lucky enough to have a staff and an EIC who accepted my argument that this actually *enhanced* the chances of prompting a foreign tourist to visit these places, which was, after all, our alleged mission.

    In the years since it’s been interesting and blackly amusing to watch most of the more evenhanded articles I wrote slowly one by one disappear from the historical record, as represented by the magazine’s website.

    It is, in short, entirely possible to work within even the most compromised of media outlets that have a direct propaganda role, and make a (small, measured, but real) change. Very far from saying, here, that all battles were won and that there were never things published that made me cringe inside (there were).

    I feel for Andrea, but cannot help but wonder if there may have been a line of slightly more resistance that may have yielded, no matter how small, tangible benefits to credibility and accountability. Win-win.

    • RFH says:

      Shannon – re: “In the years since it’s been interesting and blackly amusing to watch most of the more evenhanded articles I wrote slowly one by one disappear from the historical record, as represented by the magazine’s website.”

      I suspect that was more likely the classic confusion of cock-up and conspiracy (never underestimate the former – especially in China, where everyone sees dark forces at work). The company was probably too tight-fisted to pay for the storage space that would have continued to archive your work: heard of Occam’s razor? The idea of some slow-burning Stalinist systematically erasing your work over the course of months and years is a little self-indulgent, don’t you think?

  5. […] this has been hashed out in the press and in blogs, but the discussion has mostly centered around Yu herself and her ethical and journalistic […]

  6. Someone thinks this story is hao-tastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  7. Li says:

    The Chinese administration has a long history of handling foreigners and making them do what the party wants. Just look at the fiery legendary reporter Anna Louise Strong, whom later led processions of laowais waving little red books over tiananmen square.

    • dave says:

      Anna Louise Strong was a socailist from the begging. Before she was in China she lived in Russia and was married to a Russian official. She was always a supporter of Communism, she didn’t need the Chinese to convince her.

    • dave says:

      Sorry I meant beginning, not begging

  8. […] the classroom. Coverage of the 18th Party Congress has been heavily controlled, with Beijing even indirectly hiring a foreign reporter to ask softball questions, potentially misleading those unaware of the government’s hand in the […]

  9. Alan Greig says:

    Point 1. Andrea Yu is not trained in journalism. She was merely doing the job her employer asked her to do. She had been with her firm for one month.To call her ethics into question is drawing a long straw.

  10. For real? Andrea Yu is not a citizen of a democracy. She can be picked up any time and thrown in a black hole; no due process, no administrative review, no consideration, nada, zip, bupkus! She is working, living, doing the work she is given to do within a totalitarian system.

    • kaz says:

      @sweetwilliamnow: last time I checked, Australia was still a democracy with a functioning legal system and no black jails. Andrea Yu nee Hodgkinson is an Australian citizen…so don’t insult China’ dissidents by placing this PR hack in their category

  11. FOARP says:

    Personally I take the line that working for the state media of a dictatorship is something filled with moral hazard, avoided it at all cost whilst in China, and have nothing but respect for those who refuse to work for them. Whilst I do sympathise with those that only worked on the sports/cultural side, the better path is quite simply to have nothing to do with what are, on final analysis, propaganda outlets.

    Eric, you mention that you think the English-language Chinese state media “push[es] the envelope quite often and [is] full of great journalists”. I would like to ask: when did they ever really push the envelope? Are you talking about GT’s Ask Alessandro pieces? What “great journalists”? Jim Fallow’s son is about the only journalist of note I can think of who has worked for these outlets and got anything out of it. Peter Hessler is one of the most notable authors writing on China to have emerged in the past decade yet, as far as I know, he never worked for any of these outlets. Richard Burger, who is an excellent blogger, did not seem to leave much of mark on GT nor, thankfully, them on him. So who are you talking about?

    • A bit late to the party (no pun intended), but an article on BeijingCream about Nikki Aaron brought me here. After reading I find this piece written here is one of the most informative and fairest treatments I’ve seen of working for the state media in China and all that it entails, and as an employee of China Radio International, I’m a bit curious about why you have such a hardline view, especially considering all the strong arguments presented here by the writer.

      I present myself and my own work to the jury. Much like Ms. Aaron, I moved to Beijing mostly out of sheer adventure (I had also been studying Chinese), and initially taught English to support myself while exploring what opportunities lay in store. I do not consider myself a journalist, but technically that’s what I am now at CRI if you will indulge me for that label.

      Since March 2012, I’ve been producing a show about underground and independent Chinese bands and musicians. The show is apolitical or, rather, non-political, in that it focuses on the music alone as well as the bands’ stories, thoughts and experiences. Of course, considering the nature of the content itself as something both previously ignored by state media and as an unsanctioned artistic movement, as well as something with somewhat of a radical and rebellious history in the west, some might say makes it political. Additionally, it gives Chinese musicians an avenue that previously did not exist to have their music featured, discussed and broadcast domestically and internationally.

      I’d like to believe it is work like this, as well as the work of my many foreign colleagues who seek out more provocative and controversial stories compared to that of the status quo, are what the writer here alludes to. It’s also worth mentioning that by nature of our precarious social standing as foreigners in China, we are much more inclined to pursue stories that a Chinese colleague would feel tremendous pressure to avoid. In this sense, would it be too far a stretch to claim that it is our duty as foreigners to do this kind of work in state media? By withholding your respect for those only who refuse to work for these outlets, I feel you are not only helping to perpetuate the stagnation of Chinese state media, but are also turning a blind eye to good work that we try to do every day despite the risks to our own professional reputations.

  12. […] for a more sympathetic take on this dilemma, see Eric Fish’s remarks about Andrea Yu, that are nonetheless very related right […]

  13. Markus says:

    If she’s really Australian, she’ll know what ‘Dorothy Dixer’ means. Ask her next time you see her.

  14. Five-mao brigand says:

    Andrea Yu’s softball question for a party-state official at a news conference reminded me of Snowden’s easy question for Putin on a Russian media talk show. The piper plays the tunes that are paid for in such circumstances.

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