Cases like the beating death of reporter Lan Chengzhang earlier this year, and the controversy surrounding the Foxconn Case in August 2006, have underscored the growing problem of media ethics and press corruption in China. A crucial point often overlooked in coverage of this issue is the relationship between problems in the Chinese media and Party press controls [See “China’s Yellow Journalism“, FEER, June 2006]. One of the lynchpin questions in the debate over ethical journalism in China is whether the professional environment for journalism can be improved without a radical rethink of the media’s role in Chinese society (which is also a fundamental question about political reform). [BELOW: Screenshot of online “Youth Topics” section of today’s China Youth Daily, with article on journalistic professionalism].

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An editorial in today’s China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the China Communist Youth League, touches on the institutional roots of poor media professionalism in China. The editorial, written by Chen Jibing (陈季冰), deputy editor of the Oriental Morning Post, one of Shanghai’s leading commercial newspapers, argues that the failure to establish “effective professional norms” in many sectors in China, including media, results from lack of “the necessary social ‘communities’ (共同体)”.

The article — “Oriental Morning Post deputy editor Chen Jibing: Only with self-discipline and regulation can there be freedom of speech” — looks at first glance like your typical media self-confession about the need for reporters to better behave and bear in mind their own responsibility to Chinese society:

… If we look more deeply, isn’t the media’s weak self-discipline just as serious a defect [as tight government control]? The two [factors] seem interconnected — because media don’t adequately self-discipline, the government controls more strictly; and because the government controls more strictly the media lack self-discipline even more. The precondition of freedom is rule of law. In the same way, journalistic norms (新闻规范) are the precondition of freedom of speech. Without a set of journalistic norms, even if the government is hands off and doesn’t exercise control, we can’t possibly achieve true freedom of speech.

But the editorial moves directly into a discussion of government regulation in “Western countries”, arguing that Western societies more effectively regulate various sectors (including professional sports, for example) through a combination of weak government and strong civil society (“小(弱)政府、大(强)社会”的格局). The article implies that state-controlled industry associations like the All-China Journalists Association should give way to more independent professional communities. The argument follows:

The most basic reason why we cannot establish effective “norms” in many sectors is that we lack the necessary social “communities”. Academic freedom needs to be supported by an “academic community”, and journalistic norms need to be supported by a “media community”. Of course, these sorts of communities are different from the government in that they are not backed up by legal force (the power to restrain under the law). Nevertheless, anyone who challenges the authority of the community will automatically lose their credentials as a community member, and owing to the internal operation of mutual acknowledgement and censure within the community, the community works as a strong binding force.

To give an example, classic cases of this kind of community are European football associations (欧洲的足球协会) [SEE UEFA], in which membership is entirely voluntary but which strongly bind registered players. Why do European players not dare commit ethics violations (打假球)? Because they know that if they are found out, or even cast into doubt, their careers are jeopardized, and even if they make the rounds all over Europe there’s not a single club that would dare sign a contract with them. Moreover, if the football association drops a player’s credentials, television advertisers will no longer do business with him. So why is it that [in China] we have a football association colored with state power (浓厚的官方色彩的足协) and yet cannot accomplish as much [as UEFA]? It’s because despite the fact that the government can leverage the force of the law, it cannot compel fans to buy tickets and watch matches. Moreover, when any industry association is connected with the state, its leaders tend to absorb themselves with their superiors rather than the healthy operation of the market.

What I’m arguing is that journalistic norms are the precondition for freedom of speech, and the creation and protection of journalistic norms relies upon the emergence of a “media community”. I don’t mean that we should give the work of propaganda offices entirely over to a news media association. And I’m not saying the government should not control [the media] from here on out. What I’m saying is that because the functions and resources of the government and industry communities are different, they should have different spheres of management. In light of China’s national realities, propaganda authorities should be responsible for questions of guidance in the ideological realm of media. Media professional associations should be charged with ordering market competition, professional principles for journalists and other questions belonging to the “social” sphere. Once this pattern of assuming respective roles and working together emerges, “freedom” and “regulation” will complement one another.

MORE SOURCES:
Chen Jibing’s personal Weblog
Unsteady Taiwanese steps, often in the wrong direction“, Ethical Corporation, March 8, 2007
Foxconn sues reporters over iPod story“, MacNN, August 29, 2006
Foxconn sues newspaper”, ESWN, August 26, 2006
The FoxConn-First Financial Daily Case Goes National/Global“, ESWN, August 28, 2006
Western Media Begins Foxconn Coverage“, ESWN, August 29, 2006
Some differing views of Foxconn“, Danwei.org, August 30, 2006
Taboo term ‘press freedom’ unshelved for domestic Chinese coverage of the Foxconn lawsuit“, CMP, August 30, 2006
China media seen as corrupt, but experts blame communist controls for skewing system“, AP, January 31, 2007
Killing Puts Focus on Corruption in Chinese News Media” (NOTE: report contains several factual inaccuracies, including date of Lan Chengzhang’s death), The New York Times, January 31, 2006

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 27, 2007, 2:30pm]