Special Issue 2001

In Crisis, Journalists Relinquish Independence

‘Ideological biases can overtake the desire to be independent.’

By Ying Chan
After clashing with a Chinese jet fighter, a U.S. spy plane crash lands on an island in southern China and its 24 crew members are held by the Chinese.

This news instantly becomes the top international story. Soon CBS News Anchor Dan Rather is talking with a former U.S. ambassador to China who urges Americans to give leaders on both sides time to resolve this difficult situation. “When should we consider this serious?” Rather asks.

When I heard this all-too-obvious identification with the Bush administration, I cringed. Neither side had fired a shot at the other. But from the perspective of journalism, there was already a casualty in this new cold war—independence from faction had been compromised.

This notion that journalists function best when they maintain an independence from those they cover is simple to understand but more difficult to adhere to, especially in times of crisis and conflict. As journalists, we know what is required to retain our independence. Except for causes directly related to our profession, we don’t join organizations or serve on boards. We report on protest marches and demonstrations; we don’t join them. We don’t sign petitions, as close as the issue might be to our heart. By becoming journalists, we give up the right to be partisans.

But ideological biases can overtake the desire to be independent. During this spy plane incident, it was clear that media in both countries rallied to their government’s side. In China, news organizations condemned the United States with a singular voice. But that’s China, where the media still are under state control. Yet in the United States, a country that boasts of having a free press, most major media accepted the Bush administration’s narrow and legalistic claim to the “right of espionage.” Media commentators praised the President for his “cool-headed” control, and few questioned why the spy plane flew off China’s coast or the wisdom of conducting such surveillance flights.

At the University of Hong Kong, I recently explained to a young writer that his role is not to defend China. A journalist’s job is to scrutinize the facts and then let the chips fall where they might. Nor is it, I told him, the task of the U.S. media to defend their nation’s actions.

Then there is the challenge of staying independent of one’s sources, including those on whom reporters depend for tips and exclusive leaks of information. Two years ago, by relying on leaks from overzealous officials at the energy department, The New York Times led the media pack in convicting—in the press—the Los Alamos nuclear scientist, Wen Ho Lee, of spying for China. No spy charge was ever filed, though lesser charges were. Lee was finally freed from prison after the judge apologized for wrongful detention.

One way to bolster the likelihood that news coverage will demonstrate that reporters have remained independent of faction is to support diversity in the newsroom. When people of different ethnic, racial and social groups work together, there is a greater chance that necessary checks and balances will be in place to counter biases. As a former reporter for the (New York) Daily News—a paper once found guilty of racism in its newsroom hiring—I am painfully aware of why diversity is so important.

In 1990 I created the Daily News’s immigration beat, one of the first in the United States, and I wrote about Mexicans, Haitians, Italians and the Irish. I wrote more about Asian Americans because those were the stories editors gave me. I didn’t resent this or worry about being pigeonholed, but I believed that to do justice to the stories of more than 170 ethnic groups in New York City, all of the paper’s beat reporters had to expand their coverage to include non-white communities. Race matters. But for too long, professional organizations have pursued diversity in terms of numbers, a worthwhile measure, but by no means the only one. Today, the goal should include promoting excellence in coverage of our different communities, irrespective of writers’ skin color.

Journalists cannot be true believers. Rather we are perpetual sojourners, restless and undomesticated. In pursuit of stories, our paths often cross with freedom fighters, especially in situations of extreme oppression. The experiences in Namibia of fellow Nieman Gwen Lister remind me of the importance of keeping independent even from one’s former allies. In the struggle against apartheid, Gwen and her staff at The Namibian suffered through arbitrary arrests, harassment and bombing of their offices. After independence, The Namibian monitored abuses of those who had assumed power. Some of these former “comrades” did not like the spotlight put on their actions; earlier this year, the ruling Cabinet ordered that no government ministry place ads in the paper.

Perhaps by learning about experiences such as Gwen’s, we will come to value—and practice—independence in our roles as journalists.

Ying Chan, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, is journalism professor and director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong. After spending 23 years in the United States working as a journalist, she returned to Hong Kong in July 1998 to create this journalism program.

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