The New Yorker's Evan Osnos Discusses Ethical Dilemmas with GBJ Students

Jun 162011

Evan Osnos, staff writer for The New Yorker and the magazine’s China correspondent, spoke recently to students in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. GBJ is a joint effort by the International Center for Journalists and the Tsinghua University School of Journalism and Communication.

Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, discusses ethical issues with GBJ students.

Osnos, who was a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune before joining The New Yorker in 2008, talked about ethical dilemmas he has encountered as a reporter in the field, not only in China, but also in the Middle East, where he was embedded with U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

He also discussed the differences between writing features for newspapers and stories for The New Yorker, and some of the challenges of writing a blog.

Osnos also talked about the “eccentric and rare process” of fact-checking at The New Yorker, and how it has improved his own writing.

Even without a fact-checking department, reporters can protect themselves from making mistakes, Osnos told the students. Checking your own copy word for word before sending it to an editor “has an incredible cleansing effect,” and protects reporters “from making really embarrassing mistakes,” he said.

Chen Yingying, who is graduating this month from Tsinghua, found the description of the fact checking particularly interesting.

“I don't think the fact check department is common in Chinese media,” she said. “Chinese journalists need such meticulous way of working to make sure all the details in the reporting are reliable.”

She and several other students were struck by the advice Osnos said he had received from a much admired veteran reporter at the Chicago Tribune when the man was retiring.

“Do no harm,” he told Osnos, who said he has had reason to think about that advice several times during his career so far.

“It’s a guiding principle that Osnos applies to his work. We have an obligation as journalists to be responsible to both the public and our sources, despite being given permission to use material on the record,” said first-year student Wairmiru Wanjau.

He also discussed the mechanics of reporting, and some students found they had had similar experiences.

“He stressed the importance of taking good notes. I found the same truth when interviewing for my final story of the feature writing class,” said Beryl Zhou. “Recording is helpful, but your own notes are always more reliable and convenient to refer to than digital gadgets.”

Osnos took questions from students and then chatted with them afterwards at a small reception.

“It’s really inspiring to hear him,” said Lina Yoon, who will graduate this month from GBJ’s program, and expects to work as a fulltime journalist.