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Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

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I had a vague idea of what/who a troll was on the internet, but Sam Leith gives some definitions:

Two pieces of wisdom today preoccupy me. One, whose originator is unknown, is: “Don’t feed the trolls.” The other—which I’ve heard plausibly attributed to the Guardian columnist Grace Dent—is: “Never read the bottom half of the internet.” The latter—a warning, essentially, against plunging into the foaming cauldron of madness in online comment threads—is a sort of preventative measure. If you don’t read the bottom half of the internet—the bit under the bridge—you stand that much less chance of finding yourself looking down on a hungry troll, with a billy-goat in your arms, and being overcome by temptation.

A troll, in internet terms, is someone who sails into a discussion just to mess things up. He is the poker of sticks into ants’ nests: the commenter who gatecrashes a rape survivor’s messageboard with a collection of Frankie Boyle jokes, or posts fake news stories about stock in forums for investors. The idea is not to contribute to the discussion, but to derail it. Online trolls thrive on rage, hurt and confusion. What they are after is a rise. Hence: don’t feed the trolls. It only encourages them.

Leith goes on to use trolling/trolliness as a key to interpreting contemporary culture.

You can see trolliness in the Twitter feeds of drunken students. But you can also see it in entertainment: the “new nastiness” in stand-up comedy – using offensive material to generate buzz – is troll-work. And you can see it in national newspapers… Provocation has always been a function of journalism, but it’s becoming an ever more central one.

There is a decipherable reason for this. Eyes on a page are eyes on a page. Retweets, whether in outrage or endorsement, are retweets. The currency of the internet is not agreement but attention. So trolling – whose only raison d’être is the gaining of attention – is a central dynamic of modern media. It could, arguably, be seen as the characteristic communicative gesture of the internet era. We live in the age of the troll.

But the currency of all entertainment and journalism has always been, to some extent, not agreement but attention. I don’t think there was some kind of pre-internet purity about ‘communicative gestures’ – editors have always wanted to sell papers; journalists have always wanted their stories to be popular. The only difference now is that Joe-punter can get his oar in to stir things up and grab everyone’s attention, whereas before if was just the professionals who had the tools and the power to enter the fray.

But maybe a fundamental difference between editors seeking attention and sales, and commentators trying to provoke a deluge of re-tweets, is that the editors were at some level accountable. You can’t call a troll to account – they just slip off into cyberspace and create another login name, another avatar. Perhaps trolling has more in common with graffiti that anything else – be it the day-glo tags on the side of a train, or the scrawl on the toilet door. It’s there to be seen and to provoke you – and you’ll never know the face of the person who put it there.

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There is bizarre juxtaposition of stories on the Guardian website this evening.

The third story on the home page is about James Harding’s evidence at the Leveson inquiry, and about the shame brought upon the Times by evidence of the paper’s involvement in email hacking:

Times hacking ‘withheld from court’

Editor James Harding apologises at Leveson inquiry for hacking of email that led to naming of police blogger.

And directly above it, 8mm away, is a piece about Russian politics that revels in its exclusive access to private emails allegedly hacked by a group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous:

‘Dirty tricks’ of pro-Putin group

Exclusive: Hacked emails show youth group paid bloggers to praise prime minister, opponents claim.
I’m not assuming that the Guardian was involved in the Russian hacking. But is no-one at the paper thinking about how these two stories relate?

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Radio - 92/365 by morberg.

This is so funny I had to post it:

On Good Friday 1930, the journalists on BBC radio news did not know what to put in the evening bulletin. The country was on holiday. The world economy appeared to be recovering after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Few guessed that the revival was a suckers’ rally that heralded a global depression. Europe was quiet — Adolf Hitler was still an obscure opposition politician — and although Britain ruled a great empire, nothing much seemed to be happening there either.

Stumped by a slow news day, the BBC delivered the most honest broadcast in the history of journalism. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is no news tonight,” proclaimed the announcer. “So here is some music.”

There is a serious point to Nick Cohen’s article “Curmudgeons of the world unite“. He is writing about how news stories today have to be reported with the same intensity – whatever the subject. The ‘frame’, quite literally, is always the same (my image not his): the border of the newspaper, the edge of the TV set, the casing of the computer screen. So that every piece is flattened or heightened to the same level, given the same spotlight. [Too many metaphors…]

Deceit in the modern Radio 4 — and in the rest of the media — does not always lie in journalists’ biases. The pretence that there is always news worth reporting can be equally deceptive. Whatever has happened — or rather, whatever has not happened — the Today programme must always run for three hours, the news pages of the press must always be filled and, like Old Man River, the rolling news channels must keep on rolling along.

The result is media without discrimination in which a parochial argument about the allocation of resources in the NHS on one day is put on a par with the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Haiti the next.

Broadcasters deliver every lead story at the same tempo and pitch. However bold they are, you will never hear John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman admit, “We’re leading with this piece because we haven’t got anything better to air. On normal days, we would never have bothered you with such a trivial item.

He goes on to sing the praises of Radio 5 Live for being the only station that is ‘suicidally candid’ enough to tell you that the matter in hand (usually a football game) is abysmally boring and not actually worth listening to. He encourages even those who hate football to tune in so that they can savour this experience of journalism in its purest form.

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