Ethics Workshop Draws Top Chinese Journalists

Oct 152010

The program challenged journalists to analyze ethical dilemmas in real-life case studies from the U.S. and China

To view a slideshow of this workshop, click here.

Professor Bob Dowling speaks about ethics to a group of professional business journalists.

BEIJING - A group of 14 mid- to upper-level Chinese journalists participated in a day-long ethics workshop at Tsinghua University on Jan. 4. The program, sponsored by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and Tsinghua's School of Journalism and Communication, discussed Western newsroom failures like the New York Times’ Jayson Blair case and compared them to China's many ethical dilemmas.

China's problem starts with government control and the newsroom culture, ICFJ trainer Bob Dowling said. “In the West, it is more about editors ignoring the warning signs when faced with a ‘great story’ … But there is a lot of common ground as well."

Dowling and professors Guo Zhenzhi, Si Jiuyue, and program director Nailene Chou Wiest looked at case studies of faked news, bought news, and the loose way individual privacy is safeguarded. The instructors explained how to draft and enforce ethics codes, especially those requiring financial disclosure and regulation of stock trading by reporters, and presented samples of ethics codes developed by Western media.

The group of participants and professors.

Guo went through a series of faked pictures and showed the full video of a migrant vendor who supposedly sold "dumplings stuffed with cardboard" that ran on Beijing TV. It was a long and professional-looking story, she noted. The freelance journalist who did the video later confessed to government investigators that he faked the story. He was sentenced to a year in jail. But questions remain about the outcome, instructors explained.

One of the key questions participants raised was how to confront the rampant practice of taking payments for stories.

"When your competitors tell their reporters payment envelopes are part of their earnings, how do you stop this?” asked Michelle Cheng, the senior business editor for The Economic Observer.

Instructors explained that first media outlets have to pay reporters enough so that the envelopes aren't considered part of monthly compensation. They could also print a public statement announcing that no payments are allowed at your publication. Better yet, by putting the disclosure in an ethics code for the publication and make the code public with a link online, everyone can see your values.

The workshop also dealt with a series of rules for managing conflicts with stock ownership. In the overheated China market, buying and selling stock has become a daily way for many Chinese to supplement income.

"How do you prevent journalists from owning stock?" asked Zhiming Xin of China Daily.

Instructors explained that outlets can set up rules for private disclosure of financial holdings to a chief editor. Restricting trading on any company the paper writes about for two weeks before and after the story is printed is another important measure. In addition, outlets should prohibit any reporter from writing about a company where he has a stock interest. Have staff update their disclosure of holdings each time they buy and sell. Most importantly, advise everyone to consult a chief editor if there is any possibility of a problem.

"Everyone has conflicts," noted Dowling. "What's important is how you manage conflicts in the newsroom. With some clear rules, that can be done, and with it you can develop a culture that prides itself on clean financial reporting."

The International Center for Journalists and Tsinghua University in Beijing launched China’s first Global Business Journalism Program on September 17, 2007. The initiative includes a two-year master’s degree program and professional trainings for working journalists from around the country.The founding sponsors of the program are Merrill Lynch, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bloomberg, and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, which form a unique partnership between business and media organizations.