Journalism in China: The Game of Anonymity 

A group of Chinese farmers queue at a local clinic in Wenlou Village, Henan Province (Dailymail)

When visiting the AIDS village in Henan Province in China in 2012 for a story, Paul J. Mooney, a veteran American freelancer, said that he was harassed by the Chinese local officials and police almost everywhere he went. “One AIDS activists who helped me meet people received a call from her local officials as we were driving in a car,” Mooney recalled. As a journalists who had been working in China for 18 years consecutively, Mooney was not shocked that he was being monitored by the Chinese government. “They ordered her to return to the village immediately, and when she went back, they questioned her and asked why she was helping a foreign journalist,” Mooney said. “Even though I know situations like that happen, I was really worried about her safety, and I felt sorry.”

The rising role that China is playing on the international level has attracted foreign media to set up China offices in order to get better Chinese coverages from western perspectives; however, working in China as journalists is totally a new experience for most of the foreign journalists who entered the industry in countries such as the U.S. and U.K., where a much freer voice could be raised by journalism. Despite language barriers that are very likely to happen, the Chinese government’s monitoring on the foreign journalists and tough policies on accessing information have become the major obstacle for the foreign reporters to do their jobs in China.

Jonathan Kaufman, the former bureau chief of Wall Street Journal’s China office in Beijing, said that many foreign journalists actually know that they are being monitored and watched by the Chinese government. As the bureau chief of the Journal, Kaufman had been informing the journalists to be extremely careful when they were out for interviews – not only for themselves, but more importantly, to protect any sources they talk to. Like what Mooney experienced in the AIDS village, the tight monitoring on the foreign journalists from the Party is likely to bring anyone who has spoken to these foreign journalists great possibility of being detained, questioned or harassed.

When it comes to talking about interviewing ordinary Chinese citizens, it reminds Mark Brayne of a story about his colleague interviewing Tibetan nuns back in the late 1980s. Brayne used to work in Beijing as a foreign correspondent for BBC Radio News in the 80s, when China was just about to open up under Deng Xiao-ping’s Economic Reform. One of the Tibetan nuns spoke very openly about Cultural Revolution and the political repression on Tibet. “I was watching the interview, and I was absolutely shocked – she [Brayne’s colleague] was showing the woman’s full face in camera saying these things,” said Brayne. “I thought it was grossly irresponsible for the British journalists to treat people [the Chinese citizens] in that way when they are talking things like this.” As far as he knew, no one was able to reach out to the nun again ever after, and no one knows what happened to her either. Brayne said, “That is not ethical journalism.”

Naming sources is a strong tradition in American journalism. The ethics code of Society of Professional Journalists suggests that journalists should try every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources, but China is an special case standing out of the pool of naming sources. “As for a place like China, where there would be huge consequences for people talking to the media, if you, the reporter, do name the sources, you could put them in very-very serious personal danger,” Brayne said, claiming that in China, protection for the sources should be placed at an even more important place than credibility of the stories. One of the most effective and direct ways to protect the sources is anonymity. Just as simple as it suggests, journalists will not name the sources they speak to in order to minimize potential harms that the coverages would bring.

However, anonymizing the sources as a protection doesn’t mean that the credibility and authenticity of stories the reporters are covering are not important. The more frequent the unnamed sources are used in a single story, the less credible and authentic the story will feel to the readers. Although anonymity is used very frequently as a protection for the sources which could be understood by the Chinese audiences, western journalistic ethics and still encourages the journalists to get the names of the sources they talk to whenever feasible because the public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability. Fulfillment of credibility as a journalistic goal and minimizing harm as protection for the sources seems to be a grey area for the journalists when they are reporting in China. The dilemma between deontology and utilitarianism of journalists pushes them to make smart and considerable decisions when they construct stories.

“I do think the most important thing [reporting in China] is to protect the people you talk to and write about, because people [in China] under this circumstance are quite vulnerable,” Kaufman said. There are always some alternative ways to compensate the loss of transparency and credibility, but it’s hard to make up the harm that journalists might have brought to these sources. Providing details of the background of the people they quote without disclosing their names can be a useful method to enhance credibility, Kaufman said, “[Wording] like ‘said a 21-year-old college student’ or ‘said a 45-year-old farmer whose family suffered during the Cultural Revolution’ might help.” Also, giving the reasons why the sources’ names are not disclosed is useful for adding credibility, such as “said a 23-year-old solider who didn’t want to be identified because the Chinese government forbids soldiers from talking with foreign reporters.”

On the other hand, journalistic tradition in Europe is much more comfortable with quoting authoritative but nameless sources, and the public also knows that. “For example, ‘friends of the Prime Minister’ usually means the prime minister him or herself off the record,” Brayne added. Specific wording and sentence composition needs to be very carefully considered before articles are published to make a good balance of credibility and minimizing harm.

While working in China, foreign journalists need to take a one more step while making the decision of naming their sources. Thirty years ago, when Brayne was still reporting in Beijing, Chinese interviewees were much more “self-censored”, meaning that they did not really talk to foreign journalists because Chinese collectivism was heavily implanted and these interviewees knew there would be consequences from the Party, from their work unions. It was a time when the government has a much tighter control of the free flow of information even than now due to restriction of technology. Now, China has changed so much that people are able to make their own “individual choices” to express their opinions or not to the western journalists. “Journalists really have the initiative to take care of the people you are interviewing – because the majority of people don’t necessarily have the implication of what would happen after they say such and such to western reporters,” Brayne said, mentioning the importance of duty of care that ethical journalists should take especially in China.

Mooney agreed, saying that “Journalists hold the responsibility of making that final decision for the sources.” A few years ago, Mooney got to know a woman and her daughter when he was covering the AIDS village in Henan Province. At that time, he did not name them in his article because if their names were published, the whole town would know and the local officials might come to their home to question them. Several years after the interview, the daughter, tried to contact Mooney to talk over. “The girl said to me that, ‘I’m 18 now and I do want to speak up for myself. If you want to quote me, just go ahead.’” Mooney thought it through for a while after he received the call from the girl, and he decided not to quote the girl’s name once again because there was no need to put her in potential danger only to add so-called credibility to the story. “Even they did talk to the journalists, they didn’t know the potential danger that they would face. We [the journalist] know it, we protect sources as much as we can,” Mooney said.

American journalists have the purest understanding of journalism that reporters have to name the sources; otherwise, it is not authentic and credible enough for the readers because they might don’t have faith that the stories they are reading or watching are accurate and fair enough. However, reporting in China is not exactly the same case: most of the Chinese reporters will not disclose names of their sources when they are quoting sources except officials who get governmental approvals before interviewing. The Chinese reporters are adapting the western journalistic ethical codes into Chinese context to ensure credibility of the story and anonymity. Li Feng, a Chinese reporter who has been covering social news for over 20 years, said that the reporters would use alias or last name or courtesy titles when they are covering civil crime stories. “Theoretically, reporters should not use unnamed sources because the stories need to be as authentic as they can,” said Li. “Sometimes we would collect a bunch of interviews from unnamed sources and give them a name, like ‘Mr. Chen.’ You might argue that it’s unethical because there is no ‘Mr. Chen’ existing that actually exists, but what we collect is the fact – we do what we should do as journalist to keep the information we present credible and authentic.”

As the managing editor of the newspaper organization she is currently working for, Li said she would require all the reporters to ask for the full name of the sources and write it down in their notebooks. “We probably still won’t name them, but at least we know that person exists and we can describe that source,” Li said. “We do what we can to ensure our stories are credible, just as what foreign journalistic ethics suggest, even though we don’t actually practice the ethics code in a rigid way.”

Ethical journalists shouldn’t weigh the public need for information over potential harm that revealing a source would bring to people. This is established in ethical rules of conduct regardless of where the reporters work, however, journalistic ethics are being practiced much more rigidly in the West than in China, in the U.S. particularly. The written ethics codes that the journalists use for reference before they make ethical decisions that almost every news organization has plays an important role in constructing transparent and credible news stories without bringing too much harm to the people involved. The American journalists’ emphasis on credibility and naming of sources makes for very responsible reporting, journalistically speaking.

“But it’s only possible in a culture where both the reporters and those reported on agree on and observe the same conventions. The culture in Europe, let alone in China, is very different, and although journalists are – or should be – very careful about authenticity, there isn’t the same sacred respect for word-for-word accuracy or attributing every quote to a named and authoritative source,” said Brayne.

Three years ago, the Chinese government refused to grant Mooney his new visa for a new reporting job at the China office of the Reuters. This accredited and experienced “China expertise” has to end journalism life in China. He used to learn Chinese in college, and, after he came to China, he seldom used Chinese interpreters because of his decent Chinese. “I love to write about China, and I like the years I was reporting in China. I thought I’d write about China until I couldn’t hold a pen and notebook anymore,” Mooney said. He did not know whether he would come back to China in the near future to continue his China life, the time of covering the difficult parts of China and practicing journalistic ethics in different social contexts makes his journalism life worthy and treasurable.

Credibility and transparency are important in a fact-revealing profession like journalism. Given the fact that Chinese society is closely controlled and watched by the government, it is incredibly important for the foreign journalists to understand the situation and make rational and ethical choices when it comes to the ethical dilemma of protecting sources and transparency of the stories. It is important and useful for the foreign journalists to understand the collective social values of the Chinese society when they work in China in order to make ethical decisions. In this context, it is even more important for the foreign journalists to place minimizing harm even before credibility of the stories. “You need to work very hard to understand Chinese society and put the social values in context of constructing your stories if you work for China branches of foreign news outlets,” Kaufman added.

We as the Journalists, hold the responsibilities to protect people who share lives with us for our stories. And yes, I do believe minimizing harm should be placed on the first place even before transparency of the story under Chinese context – of course, the reporters need to compensate for the loss of credibility of anonymity, in order to provide a much considerable and responsible coverage to the public. 

 (All interviews with Li are conducted and translated from Chinese)


Jonathan Kaufman
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, editor, and author. He served as The Wall Street Journal’s China Bureau Chief, based in Beijing. During his time as the Journal’s China Bureau Chief, Kaufman led coverage of the country’s emergence as a global economic superpower, the SARS outbreak, and political, environmental, and social issues. Currently he is the director of School of Journalism at Northeastern University.
Paul J. Mooney
An American freelance journalist who has reported on Burma, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong since 1985. Mr. Mooney has been on staff at Reuters, Newsweek, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Eastern Express, the South China Morning Post and many other news outlets. He is also the recipient of a 11 journalist awards for his reporting on China, was based in Beijing from 1994-2012.
Mark Brayne
Former BBC and Reuter foreign correspondent with 30 years’ experience of working in and reporting from Russia, Eastern Europe and China. From 1984 to 1987, Brayne was the BBC’s Radio News correspondent in Beijing. He used to travelled extensively in China and the Far East, covering the beginnings of China’s rise after the Cultural Revolution to the status of major world economic and political power. Now he is an accredit psychotherapist in UK.
Li Feng (李风)
Current managing editor of YongPai (甬派), a digital news application launched under Ningbo Daily News Inc. She has been working as a reporter for over 20 years, focusing on social and civil news line.
Journalism in China: The Game of Anonymity 

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