(Image Credit: Courtesy of David Schlesinger)
It’s about finding the space between.
It’s about navigating the seen and unseen hazards.
It’s about defining the often indefinable.
It’s about creating something new, when the bounds and rules are sometimes hard, sometimes soft, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, sometimes clear and sometimes opaque.
Independent journalism in China is not for the fainthearted.
Not only is journalism everywhere re-defining its place in the world and in the economy, but China itself is in the process of establishing what it means to be an emergent economic, regional and world power. And the bounds of expression, of investigation and of independent action within China’s borders – both the physical borders and the virtual borders of the internet world – seem constantly in flux.
There is however, still a space between. There is a space where experimentation is possible. There is a space where investigation is possible. There is a space where independence is possible.
The issue is that the dimensions of that space are not neatly geometric, or easy to define in a few short sentences, or simple to compute with a few straightforward formulas. What seems acceptable on Monday may lead to trouble on Tuesday or may be brought out as a major problem next month.
The People’s Daily sometimes gets the essence of the problem exactly right. When it declared in December, “Use Ethics to Disperse the Haze of Journalism” (用道德驱散“新闻雾霾”) that’s actually important advice, as long as there is common understanding of what the ethical standards are, as long as there is a common understanding of what constitutes the haze enveloping bad journalism, and as long as there is a common commitment to what good journalism actually entails.
The need for good journalism in China has never been more important.
Good, fair, objective journalism provides the transparency society needs as China transitions from a country where corruption ran rampant to one where a strong anti-corruption message, backed by action, comes from the very top.
Good, fair, objective journalism provides the clarity society needs as China transitions to a country where there is rule by law.
Good, fair, objective journalism functions as the clearest mirror for good government, reflecting the true conditions of society and showing reality rather than merely intentions.
Good, fair, objective journalism is the pressure safety valve for society, allowing problems to vent before they become serious.
While it is natural for those in power to see journalists as being a dangerous or negative force, that’s actually a very short sighted reaction. The best journalists do not stand in opposition because they delight in causing trouble. The best journalists are actually true patriots, for they want to improve government and society through their efforts.
However, it is this tension between the real and the ideal that makes it so difficult for official media to play their true role and that makes it so important for there to be brave, careful yet fearless independent voices.
For those voices, it is vital that they commit and adhere to the strictest standards of journalism. As we have seen in sad examples from around the world, when journalists violate their standards, it doesn’t just hurt them or their publication, it reflects terribly on the entire profession, and, most importantly, it hurts the very causes the journalists might be trying to promote.
Journalistic ethics are not that abstruse; most are simply common sense. Yet, like many simple things, actually living up to them can be difficult.
Objectivity is the discipline of seeing things clearly, without allowing personal prejudice to color judgments. Transparency means revealing any and all conflicts or preconceived notions to the reader, so the journalist’s objectivity can be weighed and judged. Fairness means making every effort to understand the story fully and to reflect that understanding back to the reader. Empathy, too, is crucial, for if the journalist really tries to understand why things are the way they are, then he or she can communicate the nuances of the situation much more effectively. Fact and opinion must be separated, labeled and made clear. Financial backers, whether investors, advertisers or donors, may be thanked and appreciated but they must never be allowed to interfere or influence. And finally: the journalist must never waver from a commitment to the truth and the interests of readers.
I salute China Current for trying to be that kind of voice in its young life so far.
The English name, China Current, is very apt. Current can mean “now” or “of the present time”, and for a news-oriented publication that is obviously very important. But current also means “flowing”, “moving like water” and for an independent publication in and about China, that is a vital attribute.
With the political atmosphere charged, with journalists under pressure and scrutiny, the ability to flow smoothly and carefully is so important to being able to continue to exist.
As long as you carry your head high, as long as you hold tight to your standards, as long as you stay true to your commitments to the profession and to the reader, then China Current and its editors and contributors will have an important role to play.
Finding the space to operate may seem very difficult sometimes. But it is there. It does exist.
In that space there is oxygen and room for life and for experimentation.
It exists between the state and its rules.
It exists between the established and the impermissible.
It exists between the public and private.
It exists where standards and ideals of journalism provide guidance and sustenance.
To experiment the way China Current does is exciting, energizing and enterprising.
To continue in 2015 and beyond, understand what is possible and do it.
Understand what is currently impossible and hope for it.
Understand where you can make a difference and make it.
Understand where the space is, and create it as your own.
Before founding Tripod Advisors, David Schlesinger was Chairman of Thomson Reuters China and was the global information services group’s senior representative in the region. He was appointed to that role after four years as Editor-in-Chief of Reuters News. He is on the boards of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Global Editors Network. Schlesinger served on the Steering Committees for Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and for Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communications.
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