Be inquisitive and be yourself, the essence of journalistic spirit

  • Qian Gang (L) and Xu Hong. Photo courtesy: Sinchew.com.my

Translated by DOMINIC LOH

The following is a dialog with Qian Gang and Xu Hong on journalism.

Qian Gang (QG)is the author of "The Tangshan Earthquake" and renowned Chinese reportage writer and head of Chinese Media Studies Program, Journalism and Media Studies Center, University of Hong Kong.

Xu Hong (XH) is renowned scholar in China and deputy chief of Journalism & Media Institute, University of Beijing.

Question: What kind of journalistic environment are we in today?

XH The Chinese media used to specialize in propaganda materials and today, I think they will carry things like business news. They are doing news now, and are doing it very seriously and professionally. Such information products satisfy the social needs for information while acting as government watchdog and fighting for the rights of ordinary citizens. Of course there are still some propaganda elements in the information they are disseminating, such as official or party-related media. Changes taking place in the Chinese media throughout the years have resulted in the above division.

QG: 30 years ago, during the Cultural Revolution and before the start of the Economic Reform, there were very few players in the Chinese media industry. There was only one uniform content newspaper in every province and the People's Daily headlines will be duplicated wholesale in all other newspapers. In the end, every newspaper in the country looked the same. During that period of time, there were no market elements in he mass media, only political ones. However, during the past 30 years, the Chinese media has completely moved out of this planned system to one that is market driven, from total control to some degree of liberty. It started to develop slowly and later picked up speed.

Such a transformation has created the polarization of the Chinese media: the party media or "PM" and commercial media or "CM." There is no clear cut distinction between the two. Even highly market driven commercial newspapers are still maintaining pretty close relations with the party media, something like that between a mother and her son, as we call it. Just like what Ms Xu Hong has said, the PM is like a mother and the CM is her son, whose earnings will he gladly surrender to his mother. (What if something happens to the son?) Chances for this are slim, as the mother will look after him. If things have gone out of hand, the mother will either disown the son, or replace the heads of the CM. I have experienced this myself personally.

(Note: During an interview of Qian Gang in the January 2013 edition of Yazhou Zhoukan, Qian said he was once dismissed because of an article he wrote back then. In 2001, Southern Weekend a robbery-murder case and when the reporter went to the suspect's hometown in Hunan province to explore the social factors that could have contributed to the behaviors of the suspect, he enraged the local authorities in Hunan. The Southern Weekend was charged for shifting the blame on the crime to the social environment of Hunan hinting at the provincial government. Qian and several reporters were either dismissed or placed under observation.)

I'll take an example to illustrate how news is being presented to the readers today. What did the readers see from the 723 high speed train crash in 2011? How did they see this? Such incidents would never be carried in news reports during Cultural Revolution, and would be made public only after many, many years. But now news spread very fast, be it PM or CM. As if that is not enough, the readers themselves would provide the news thanks to the availability of the Internet. Picture of the train crash would have be captured by the residents living nearby and be uploaded to microblogs instantly, questioning why the train would not stop or something could have gone wrong somewhere. After the incident was made public on the media, the Chinese newspapers would present very different things the following morning. On the front page of People's Daily and other PMs was official news but on the CMs, the train crash.

Consequently, I would like to make a general statement on the media of China with three C's: Control, Change, and Chaos.

Question: what are the things journalists must do at a time when every civilian could play the role of a reporter?

QG: There are plenty of instances in this world. Whenever something serious takes place, such as the Boston bombings and the train derailment in Spain, reporters were not the first to reach the site and provide images or text materials to the world., and they are not going to this as well. What the reporters do is to provide the reading public with verified and analyzed pieces of information, something that could not be delivered by a simple image or an untrained villager.

XH:The breaking news is on the first line of news production and the real-time capture of breaking news obviously shows the accomplishment of free media. But then what are the reporters doing? First of all, they must assemble all the relevant pieces of information, and then verify the news and do follow-ups. Since much of the information will not be provided by the persons involved in the incident, the reporters need to follow up and analyzed the acquired data. In the end more importantly they have to interpret, survey and discover the truths lurking behind the incidents. Other than making speedy coverage of a breaking news, there is more important mission for the reporters, i.e. to discover and unearth the irregularities existent in the society. They are like woodpeckers that care a lot about the trees and are eager to take the worms out of them.This is the job that reporters need to take the initiative to do and such a responsibility must not be forgotten.

QG: The woodpecker that Xu was talking about is actually the supervisory role of public consensus to expose acts of corruption. Although this part is participated on the reporters' own initiatives, we now see the emergence of we-media as a an extremely powerful platform to expose and publicize the truth. For instance there are many netizens in China who will reveal the excessively luxurious watches or big houses of some government officials. In this case, the reporters will play the role of assemblers and verifiers of individual pieces of information available. As a result, the information presented to the readers today is very much different from they used to get in the past.

XH: There is a very distinct separation line in time., one that distinguishes the pre-new media and post-new media ages. The July 27, 2009 tweet "what are u doing now?" will become "discover & report what's happening around u," resulting in dramatic changes in the process of news production. Media experts are of the opinion that such changes have invariably created a predominant media. When people are evolving from the self expression of "what are u doing now" to the narration of "discovering and sharing what's happening around them," they are in essence exerting their capacities as civilian reporters, or what we call the functionality of we-media. Civilian reporters have since participated in the generation of news reports. In the past, the reporters used to track down the news layer by layer but now, the news is presented from the inner core by people directly involved in the news, giving the news presentation added degree of authenticity.

QG: Actually there is no clear cut distinction because from the real-time exposure by the we-media to the subsequent participation of reporters, the interval could be as short as under one minute in some instances.

Question: How could we judge whether a journalist is professional?

QG:The most fundamental thing is to get back to the core of the journalistic profession, i.e. independent news and free thinking. The constitutional provision of civilian's right to freedom of speech must be honored before we can talk about professionalism. "Professionalism" is not something that can be addressed with a few words. It needs to be fully manifested in the professional capacity of reporters in assembling and analyzing data. I'll like to cite an example in HKU to illustrate my point. Ms Chen Wanmi, director of HKU Journalism and Media Studies Center, is of the opinion that investigative reports have been upgraded from Version 1.0 to 2.0 today. Other than the utilization of the we-media information, there is another thing in the reporters' integrated capability, i.e. follow the money. Many instances of corruption have left behind traces in monetary transactions, especially with the completely liberal and transparent financial system we have today. We must learn to check the balance book if you are living in Hong Kong or the West, and identify the problems from the account books because there is a lot of information that cannot be concealed from public knowledge, such as the equity structure or company registration. So, follow the money and you might be able to track down a large tiger from there.

XH The training of our reporters must be instituted from the very basis of independent spirit because they are serving the general public and must therefore not give in to the authorities or any interest group. To some extent, they must also not give in to public consensus. They should act independently, and this fundamental philosophy is of utmost importance to reporters. As for professional training, I personally feel that it should not be on how to present the content fast. On the contrary, we need to overcome the issue of ultra short lifespan of news with quality and depth.Since the news will die out very fast, how are we going to extend the life of news and make it a true part of history tomorrow? The key lies in the presentation of truth and reality. This we need a lot of basic training. Not only must we study the ways to do it, it also involves the other qualities of an individual such as social science, sociology, history, literature, etc. Such basic training is of paramount importance and must therefore not be rushed.

QG:For our HKU students majoring in journalism, the actual journalism part only makes up about 30%, with 70% credits from non-journalism studies, including the compulsory statistics. Just the "follow the money" I said just now, statistics is a very important discipline.

XH: The equivalent of statistics for us is social survey methods, which includes field survey, quantitative and qualitative studies, etc. The students must learn all these.

QG: Exactly, we all attach a lot of importance to the advent of the data age, and the collection and analysis of data.

Question: If you are given the power to change the status quo, what will it be?

XH: I don't think an individual alone can change things, but if every individual PF every different profession can do his or her best, then the entire society can be changed. If you are a reporter, whenever something important takes place and you are trying to pick out the truth like a woodpecker, are you not trying to do something to change our society?

QG:When I am concerned about something, I cannot expect my students to love this profession or love doing news after I finish my lecture. To love doing something is not because of anything else, not because it is noble or great. If everyone spontaneously loves one thing, there must be something lovable about this thing. Besides, everyone has a kind heart deep inside them. He loves this job because he feels that it is the right thing to do, and interesting and rewarding as well. If he loves this career after attending my class, and many others as well, then won't this profession forge ahead in the right direction?

XH: Indeed, what Qian has said is very important, because it is not easy to get a student to choose, or love this profession. The materialistic trends, including the many confusions in a transforming society, will perk up the risk level of this industry. Coupled with the relatively weak financial prospects and the very high expectations for a journalist to serve or even sacrifice for the society, many will not go for this profession from the financial point of view. If a person loves statistics, he can opt for accounting instead...

QG: We will tell the students: if you have a gift of tongue and writes very well, you will be much sought after by any industry. That said, to do a course in journalism does not mean you must end up becoming a reporter or working as an editor in a newspaper company. The enthusiasm for this industry is basically like this: the recorder of an era must have the interest to observe and put things down in words. I have the urge to observe, and put it down in words as well. You can accomplish this whether you are a reporter or an editor or anything else.. If you learn statistics, and because you want to make a little more money and eventually get hired by a bank. the old dream deep inside you will be reawakened after ten years. You will still want to become an observer and recorder, and will come back to do some writing. I have seen a lot of such instances. People from the lawyer's firms and banks come to the HKU media study center for a postgraduate course.

Question: What do you think are the unique characteristics of a journalist?

XH: Powerful sense of curiosity, not to himself but people and things around him.

QG: We have to agree that many in our midst are curious. People with powerful curiosity are particularly welcome to join us.

XH: To be frank, Qian Gang and I went to look for the grave and mansion of Loke Yew out of curiosity. Although we didn't find them, we were very contented and we enjoyed the process a lot. That could be our inborn, customary and instinctive curiosity to explore things. We felt it was very meaningful.

QG: Put it another way. parents may not like the personalities or tempers of some of their children, but journalists need to have them. Number one, love to inquire, number two, love to broadcast, and number three, love to query. The believe in nothing and will question insistently. If a person doesn't like to inquire or broadcast, then journalism will be very tough for him. To keep asking questions is of utmost importance to a reporter. I refuse to believe in hearsay, and want to find out yourself before you tell the story.

XH:I am still very concerned whether a journalistic student knows how to mingle with people and listen to others. These two qualities are very important. To mingle around is by no means an easy task. You will need to be sociable and accommodating, and be equipped with the most fundamental motive of trying to understand other people a little more. There are a lot of issues arising from poor communication among people. So, this is a big knowledge in mass media. You will learn to nurture an enthusiasm to mingle, express yourself and listen to other people while being able to forward your questions and discuss with others. You will discover that this is actually a kind of democratic training, a kind of civic quality. I personally feel that this is way more important than telling people what is journalistic professionalism. This is actually also a medium quality lesson which I feel should be made a general course that not only belongs to journalism, a contribution from journalistic studies to our national education.

Question: How are you going to groom journalists who think?

XH: Qian has written two very marvelous books: The Tangshan Earthquake and Qing Dynasty School Children in America I feel it would be more appropriate for Qian to answer this question, especially The Tangshan Earthquake which is a landmark masterpiece in the eyes of many Chinese reporters.

QG: Many people having gone through the Cultural Revolution would have experienced dramatic changes in the way they think, not because of themselves but because people at that time had very weak personal powers. Drastic changes took place in China, the death of Mao Zedong and the end of Cultural Revolution. Everyone had to walk a new journey. First of all, what they needed to contemplate was not which new road to take, but whether which road should be avoided at all costs. We don't want to turn back. The earliest kind of thinking is called introspection, which is a painful retrospection of the painful past. The Tangshan earthquake happened when the Cultural Revolution was about to end, and I, without any professional training or without having gone through such profound changes in thinking, became a member of the rescue team. I recorded all that I saw but I couldn't write it down back then. Not only I was not allowed to write it down, but all that I contributed for a magazine back then were all by-products of Cultural Revolution: shallow and unfounded praises that didn't offer to solve the problems.

The biggest problem is that this most destructive earthquake in the world in 20th century killing some 240,000 people and seriously injuring 160,000 others, such a massive scale of natural calamity, all that we could do from the ground zero was something so shallow as which places had sent in rescue resources or which places had sent in the rescue squads. You have forgotten the real protagonists of this place, those who were in deep sufferings. 240,000 people had perished! But we avoided seeing the victims. We refused to understand the agonies they had gone through. All that we knew was how benevolent the Great Leaders or the Liberation Army were. Indeed they were good, and I myself was a member of the Liberation Army, but they simply shouldn't take the centerstage in news reporting!

Many years later, after the Cultural Revolution ended and during the start of the 1980s, Xu Hong and I involved ourselves in journalism. It was still brainstorming back then. Do you (Xu) still remember the 1980s when we came into contact with the journalistic works of Westerners that we realized this was the way they did the news. Of course there was literature books as well, and we all had the experience of lining up in front of bookstores at four or five in the morning to buy the books by Western literary masters. So the brainstorming session started from that time and began to really take effect only after mid-80s. So, I only could write about the Tangshan earthquake ten years after the disaster, in 1986. It was totally different this time. It was centered around people, the victims of the Great Earthquake, and their affliction. After the book was published, people felt the book was telling the truth. You see, such a simple thing as telling the truth would need to take so many years to accomplish.

XH 1980s was a period of enlightenment. I personally found that I had recovered my brain above my neck. As it turns out, we never used our brain to think prior to that. All that we did and believed was dictated to us from the above, or the books. And the books were none other than the words of the Supreme Leader or quotes from other leaders, nothing coming out from our own brains. The good thing is,. after the Cultural Revolution, we started to recover our brains in the 1980s, and came to the knowledge that we actually had our own ways of thinking. Our subjectivity finally came out. After we have recovered our own subjectivity could we claim to be real humans, I guess!

QG: Precisely. We have compassion and love, but these things were long suppressed. You were only allowed to love the Leader and Socialism. You can only think with your own brain once you are liberated from the bondage of mind. Many new things will be generated, including compassion, candidness. Back in those years we didn't even had the feeling of shame because our personalities had been distorted. After we were delivered out of it, I went back to Tangshan to verify the information. That was 1983 or 84. I was studying at the Liberation Army Arts Academy and I went back to Tangshan for five or six times. My feelings were no longer dominated by the ideology. I was freed from the bondage of erstwhile years and found the real self in mine, my own feelings. I allowed myself to cry and laugh out loud, and to be moved emotionally. I then penned down my thoughts for other people. I believed that sentiment was transcending geographic boundaries and the work was subsequently translated into several languages for broader transmission.

XH It was a return to humanity, the real feelings of a human being and his return to rationality.from bestiality and violence. I truly hope that all the outer shells that enwrap the students, including all the ideologies, external demands and all kinds of theories, could be cast aside, and bring out their true self, be tenderized, learn to love and cry so that our emotions could find the most genuine outlets. especially after the Cultural Revolution in Mainland China, when the duality of human has become so powerful. I really hope our young students will revert to their natural self.

QG: As teachers, we are still able to observe what have bonded our students if we were just a little more attentive. There are things that bog down the students like a spider web, which could be secular, powers or lies. We try to unleash them, making them a little more natural, as such natural passions are particularly precious. How could a reporter not have passions, just spontaneous passions that need not be exaggerated or feigned. If a reporter says he has no feelings at all, then he wouldn't have been able to write a thing. How should a reporter make reasonable use of his feelings? Yang Zhao has said more passions are required of reportage literature. Of course, Mainland China is currently at a stage of rebound. We emphasize more on calmness but we are also expressing our true feelings, and feelings can be calm, too.

XH: What Qian just said is absolutely true. As a matter of fact, we can see what exactly is bothering our students. For example, if we tell them to report news, we would find that they all write the same thing, with the similar official tone, nothing from their hearts. Their couldn't write what they really feel. They either have copied a few things from here or there, or stuck to the set format of the newspapers. I will reject these kinds of things, and will ask them what they really want to express deep inside them or what truth they have seen. They have to put these things down in words. So, I keep rejecting their works this way until they wrote something from their hearts.

Question: Can you name so truly exceptional journalists or literary works in China? Something on the same par as the female chief White House reporter?

QG: There are many high caliber reporters in China. If we were to think of this from the aspect of the environment in Mainland China where a reporter will need to take a whole lot of risk and pay a great deal of price just to say one true thing. Where this is concerned, I feel that the level of professionalism of Chinese journalists is simply superior.

XH: The American journalistic environment demands of a heroic kind of confrontation. To be honest, the age of such heroic confrontation is now over. Today, the new generation journalists do not work quite the same way as in bygone years, especially with the emergence of the we-media, which means the era of Helen Thomas is behind us now. Back to the journalistic environment of China, journalists ought to be respected. To the some extent, they are in a much tougher environment than their American counterparts. And also because of the toughness, the level of their achievement is higher. Owing to the difficulty in acquiring information and risks that need to be embraced, they have to do a lot more than renowned Western journalists that I know.

QG: We highly recommend Money (Caijing) and New Century (Xin Shiji). The editor-in-chief of Caixin Media and Caixin New Century Ms Hu Shuli is an exceptional figure known as the most dangerous woman in China.

Question: Do you have your personal motto?

QG: No.

XH: No. But if there is one, it is that the reporter must voice up his queries and questions in every single thing. No, I don't have any motto; neither will I believe in any single doctrine.

QG: Whenever we hear the word "motto," a chill will run down our spine. During the Cultural Revolution, Lin Biao said we had to treat the words of Chairman Mao as motto.