In the most recent edition of Guangzhou’s Southern Weekend, CMP fellow Wang Keqin (王克勤) is interviewed about his thoughts and experiences as an investigative reporter in China. Wang speaks principally about the need for more professional and ethical conduct by journalists.
The interview is part of the newspaper’s “Chinese Dream” series.
Southern Weekend‘s interview with economist Wu Jinglian (吴敬琏) on China’s future economic development is also well worth a read:
Southern Weekend: You are perhaps the oldest of China’s investigative reporters. Moreover, you are the most enthusiastic and vigorous of investigative reporters. Judging from your writings, I would say that you see journalism not just as a profession but as a religion.
Wang Keqin: Some have asked me whether if I saw someone fall into the water, my first reaction would be to save them or to photograph the scene. My answer is that the choice is simple. You save the person first. They say, well aren’t you a journalist? And I say, look, I’m sorry, when my mother gave birth to me, I was a human being first and foremost, then a citizen of this society of ours. It was only later that I became a journalist.
Southern Weekend: So you’re not reporting for the sake of reporting?
Wang Keqin: That’s right. If you want to talk about reporting for the sake of reporting, I could list of so many examples [of other’s work]. There was one report in 2004 by a media outfit in Jilin Province about a migrant worker who had leapt out of a window and died. The report’s headline was, “High altitude flight staged last night” (昨夜上演高空飞人). In September of that same year, a newspaper in Jiangsu Province reported how an agricultural transport vehicle struck a bicyclist in the head, killing them. The headline of that report was: “Bicyclist hit right in the head, dies vicious death” (骑车人中头彩：惨死). From these headlines you can glimpse their cold and cynical view of life.
But examples of this kind appear not just in local media. On September 6, 2004, there was a television station that, reporting on a human tragedy in Russia, invited viewers to participate in a contest, guessing the number of children who had been brutally murdered and sending in their answers by instant message [CMP Note: this “television station” was China Central Television, reporting on the Beslan school hostage crisis.]
Now I would ask, if it was your child who was senselessly murdered, would you want the audience playing lottery over it? So, I often discuss this with people. What does it mean to do journalism?
The most elementary goal is to transmit information and report the facts. But journalism has another ultimate goal and end. What is that? It is about protecting the rights of individuals.
On this note, we can look carefully at a case that happened in 2007. After suggestions surfaced of an outbreak of swine flu in eastern Sichuan that year, a Hong Kong television station went to the area to report, as was their duty I guess you can say. But what they did afterward was shockingly unbelievable. They hired a local peasant to dig three meters down and unearth the carcass of an infected pig so that they could film it.
This coverage drew huge audiences in Hong Kong, and the reporters benefitted greatly as a result. But there are at least three basic problems here. First, it deviates from the ultimate value of journalism in that this behavior might conceivably endanger the very life of another person. All of our work in society should be conducted with the idea of making people’s individual lives safer, healthier, freer and more prosperous. This is an ultimate human value, and it is the basic starting point of journalism.
Second, their conduct was fraught with discrimination. This is a problem from which many journalist suffer. We have these prejudices tucked away. The prejudice of the journalist toward the ordinary individual. The prejudice of the city resident toward the rural peasant. I once saw a news report from a major media outfit in China about a migrant worker’s death by high-voltage electricity. Do you know how they described it? It was like roasted duck. That’s how they described it with deep-laden prejudice to their readers. And many readers no doubt were influenced subconsciously by this prejudice.
Third, this conduct by the Hong Kong journalist was illegal. According to our laws on the prevention of communicable diseases, human conduct resulting in second-hand transmission of disease is a criminal offense.
So on the one hand, Chinese journalists face the dilemma of receiving no protection under the law; and on the other hand, Chinese journalists, like the rest of us, operate in an environment that is essentially lawless. This is a monstrous situation.
Southern Weekend: The proper respect for life isn’t just an issue for journalism.
Wang Keqin: Yes. I’ve always said that I’m a human being first, a citizen second and a journalist last. I’ve often had people say that I do too many things that don’t fall in a journalist’s purview. They say that I step over the bounds. I say, look, I’m sorry, in my reports I follow the rules of professional reporting and conduct very strictly. But after I’m done reporting, as a citizen, I can seek to do more for the rights and interests of the weak with whom I am faced. In such cases I must act as a citizen.
As an individual, when I see others in pain I feel pain with them, and the solution to this pain is action. What is humanity? It is about feeling pain in your heart of hearts when you see others who are suffering pain. If what you feel at seeing others suffer is excitement, this indicates that your humanity has already been distorted.