Ethics and Empathy

No. 6


In one of the journalism ethics classes I took in j-school, the professor assigned us to read real-world cases where journalists faced ethical dilemmas. We’d have to come up with our own solution as if we were the journalist, applying the relevant principles in the SPJ Code of Ethics to each situation. 

But when I started working as a reporter in China, I realized that China was a unique beast when it comes to practicing journalism. Sticking to the SPJ Code of Ethics sometimes meant giving up on important stories. 

China today holds over a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region in “re-education camps”, according to the United Nations. My friends and former colleagues there are striving to tell the massively important Xinjiang story despite being closely monitored during their reporting trips.

I applaud each incredible piece of reporting out of Xinjiang that raises awareness on the issue. Yet I am also especially concerned about the safety of individuals who were approached by some journalists who misrepresented themselves and whose identities can easily be tracked by authorities. (We’ll dive deep into the controversy surrounding a recent documentary filmed in Xinjiang in the Rock the Boat section.)

Some Uyghur activists, desperate to seek an end to the cruel plight of their entire population, dismissed concerns like mine as out-of-touch. Many of us Chinese journalists, mostly from the privileged Han majority, ask ourselves how we can better understand the atrocities inflicted on the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in order to be both empathetic toward the suffering and be critical of Xinjiang stories involving questionable journalistic practice. 

‘Til next time,
Shen Lu 沈璐


The best work from our members.

👪🇺🇸 My American Surrogate
Yan Cong 丛妍
co-produces a short documentary on a Chinese surrogacy agent’s business in southern California, which has become a one-stop shop for wealthy Chinese couples seeking to hire American surrogates to have their babies for them. This film is showing in New York City on July 17 and 18.

🏫👁️ Inside Xinjiang’s Camps
A BBC crew visits the highly secured facilities in Xinjiang thought to be holding more than a million Uyghurs. The short film uncovers evidence about the nature of such camps in contradiction to what Chinese authorities portray as training schools and the harrowing conditions there. Lulu Luo 罗璐璐 co-produces this film with Kathy Long.

💯👩🏻‍🎓 The Gaokao
In her latest Science and China column for SupChina, Yangyang Cheng 程扬扬 reflects on the vast inequality in China’s education system and the myth of meritocracy through her own experience of sitting the grueling gaokao, China’s college entrance examination.

🥟🇨🇳 The CSSA
American intelligence officials have painted the Chinese Students and Scholars Association as a Trojan horse to infiltrate American campuses. Shen Lu 沈璐 writes in a New York Times opinion piece about the paranoia and hyperbole to the threat of the CSSA by offering a peek into what the much-hyped student “operation” looks like on the ground.
READ (paywall) 

🏳️‍🌈💪🏽 LGBTQ Elders’ Housing Struggles
CNN’s Alice Yu takes part in the network’s special Pride project. Among all her Pride coverage, she produces and films this video about how American LGBTQ elders, including the Stonewall generation, suffer from discrimination and isolation. The people who’ve fought against inequality their entire lives are still struggling with housing instability.

💰🚢 China’s Trade Tools
Ahead of the highly-anticipated Trump-Xi meeting during the G20 summit, MacroPolo’s Joy Dantong Ma 麻丹彤 analyzes the retaliatory tools Beijing could wield if Beijing reverted back to retaliation mode and how they might affect the U.S. economy.

🇺🇸🇨🇳 Frenemies?
Caixin’s Zhang Qi 张淇 travels to Osaka, Japan to cover the Trump-Xi summit, where presidents of the United States and China agreed to restart trade talks. At a press conference, Zhang asks U.S. President Donald Trump a question: are the U.S. and China strategic partners, competitors or enemies?
READ (paywall)

🇭🇰🇨🇳 Tension Spillover
Tensions between Hong Kong and China heightened as protests in Hong Kong against an extradition bill further developed. Thousands of miles away, BBC’s Zhaoyin Feng 冯兆音 captures similar tensions on American university and college campuses between mainland Chinese students their Hong Kong counterparts. 

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Thoughts from our members and beyond on topics about the media industry, diversity and more.

HBO recently aired a VICE documentary that details omnipresent surveillance and brutal policing in Xinjiang. The VICE journalists presented themselves as travel bloggers to locals, and most of their footage was filmed secretly with hidden cameras. It’s unclear whether some of the people who appear in the video and whose identities were revealed gave their consent to the journalists. Reactions to the documentary have been mixed.

Our member William Yang 楊晧暐, the East Asia Correspondent for Deutsche Welle, praises the courageous coverage but raises concerns about VICE’s practice:

Even though the young Uyghur class president's face was not shown, her voice was not altered at all, which could very well allow the Chinese government to track down who she was if they wanted to... the part where the two Han Chinese men who grew up in Kashgar explaining how they never encountered any terrorism also completely exposed their faces and voices, making them easy targets for punishment if the government decides that they are not happy with what they have shared.

Humar Isaac-Wang, a Uyghur activist based in Sweden and former a content editor at Tencent and Zhihu, believes the voices of people on the ground being heard by the outside world trumps journalistic ethics:

Which scenario would be safer for the class president girl to say all the things she said? Being told that was an interview with a foreign press or "manipulated and secretly recorded by a malicious foreigner"? If we all agree that talking itself is a crime in Xinjiang, getting secretly recorded without consent is actually a safer way for people to have their voice heard… I hope more people will go there with hidden cameras, to make trouble, to make low-level attempts, to run up against journalistic ethics.

Luna Lin, who previously worked for The Washington Post and The Guardian’s Beijing bureaus, believes the greater the atrocity, the greater need there is for journalists to keep in mind their actions could have consequences for other people:

Ignoring journalistic ethics for what's happening in Xinjiang is a slippery slope...In this case, the misrepresentation of the VICE team put people who are already an easy target of the crackdown in a dangerous position which they could have avoided if they have a choice. The bottom line, see people as people, not just the colour in the story, not expendable tradeoffs.

Our member Kiki Zhao 赵添琦, a former journalist with The New York Times and The Financial Times in China, sees a larger issue in the VICE film:

The VICE doc is the perfect example to show imperialism at play — parachuting a British journalist into Xinjiang to own the local’s stories by breaking every possible ethical practice — in the guise of journalism and human rights... all major international news outlets have done important and excellent reports out of Xinjiang while upholding journalistic ethics.

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We recognize our members’ professional achievements (and flatter them).

🥇Mengwen Cao 曹梦雯 received the 2019 Excellence in Photojournalism Award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for her photos of the Wigstock festival for NPR.

🥈Quartz News’s video series about China, which Isabelle Niu 牛牧歌 is a producer of, was named a 2019 Gerald Loeb Award finalist. Quartz’s “Because China” series focuses on a rising China’s impact on the rest of the world.

🎙️Yangyang Cheng 程扬扬 was on Australia’s ABC Radio National "Science Friction" program last week, discussing a wide range of topics, from dark matter to political oppression, from the ongoing high-tech ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang to the ethical quandaries in science and a scientist's moral agency.

🙌 Sixteen of our members made the SupChina China Twitter 100+ list. Hats off to SupChina for updating their list to include a diversity of China specialists, scholars and journalists. It sets a great example of how to be reflexive and responsive to criticism.

🥂 Tell us what makes you proud via email, Slack or Twitter.


Jobs, gigs, grants, fellowships, etc.

GAPA Foundation Community Grant - [Global]
The Gay Asian Pacific Alliance Foundation funds films that advance the Asian & Pacific Islander LGBTQ+ community (up to $5,000 per project). The application deadline is July 14. Apply.

National Geographic Grant - [Global]
National Geographic is accepting proposals for photography, filmmaking, cartography, journalism or digital media that cover wildlife, changing planet or human journey for its Exploration Grant ($10,000-30,000). The deadline is July 10. Apply.

Visual Journalist - [NYC]
FiveThirtyEight’s graphics and interactives team is hiring a visual journalist to tell data-driven stories. Apply.

👀 Find more on the #opportunities channel on Slack.

Writer: Shen Lu; Editors: Miles Goscha, Muyi Xiao; Copy Editor: Afra Wang; Photo: Xinyan Yu.

Chinese Storytellers is a community that empowers Chinese non-fiction content creators. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.