The future of Asia reporting

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Last year, Al-Jazeera English closed its Beijing bureau after Chinese authorities refused to renew a correspondent’s press credentials. The move was the latest in a line of news organizations that have decided to pull reporters out of China. For myriad reasons, mostly financial, more than 20 major newspapers have cut their foreign bureaus entirely in the last 15 years, not to mention television networks like Al-Jazeera English. So while the United States today faces some of its greatest ever political and economic competitors in Asia, the traditional model of foreign correspondents bringing news from abroad directly to the homes of Americans seems to be drawing its final breaths.

China, the biggest issue of all, is facing its own journalistic challenges as government censorship limits western ideas of a free press. But, because of the withdrawal of news organizations from the Asian sphere, the issue of disseminating news from China will only grow more urgent.

“I think we’re past the point where many news organizations will be stationing foreign correspondents to Asia.” Kerry Luft, Nation and World editor for the Chicago Tribune, said. “The only major outlets I’m aware of are those like the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. But the era in which most major newspapers would routinely have foreign correspondents is past, and I don’t see those days coming back.            Luft, who among his other duties is largely responsible for coordinating efforts on reporting stories of interest from outside the United States, is one of the increasing number of journalists who feel that having foreign correspondents just isn’t in the cards for the media anymore, largely due to budgetary constraints in a hemorrhaging business. Instead of the traditional model, with reporters based abroad, Luft advocates buying “as much foreign coverage as possible” and then making targeted trips into the region for stories that are valuable to my readers.” This way, rather than forgo sending journalists to Asia entirely, he aims to have reporters visit the region periodically to follow leads of interest.

“Obviously it would be better having journalists living there. You won’t understand the culture as well, the psychology as well, and the context as well without them. But at this point, it’s financially impossible,” he said. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense in this environment to send correspondents over when you can get the stories from other sources.”

Yet, with the Asian sphere playing an increasingly dominant role on the world stage each year—China owned $1.2 trillion of U.S. Treasury Securities by the end of August while sustaining the second largest economy in the world—it is easy to see that the American public stands to benefit from comprehensive news coverage of Asia and particularly China. In a transitional period for international news coverage, Luft and those like him are overseeing the transition to new methodologies of covering international news.

The question, then, is how this new methodology will be incorporated into existing Asian journalistic institutions. Will American reporters face similar difficulties in obtaining visas as happened with Al-Jazeera English? Local journalistic culture could point the way for American news organizations to head.

In Japan, for example, news has long come through an entirely different reporting structure than exists in the U.S. The kisha kurabu, sometimes known as “kisha clubs,” are important organized structures of reporters. These press clubs have the ability to monopolize coverage of things like press conferences for their specific affiliated organizations, completely shutting out foreign media. It is in some ways an idea foreign to Western notions of free press, but not necessarily inaccurate in its reporting.

And consider China, Asia’s self-proclaimed hegemon and economic powerhouse. Government-owned publications have long been common there, and a well-publicized history of censorship could cast doubt on the effectiveness of Chinese reporting. Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental organization dedicated to freedom of the press, reported that China “has more journalists, bloggers, and cyber dissidents in prison than any other country” in its World Press Freedom Index 2011-2012, and ranked China 174th out of 179 countries in overall press freedom.
If China is to be perhaps our biggest economic and political competitor in these times, American news organizations are either going to have to devote more resources to establishing foreign news bureaus or they will have to rely on local Chinese journalists. Despite the censorship reports, journalism is growing exponentially in China, according to Gerald Kato, Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Just because these systems are different from the objective and independent model treasured in the United States does not mean they are less effective, he said. In fact, this new generation of reporters might be able to do the reporting for both Chinese and American news organizations.

I think there are very good local journalists in China,” Kato said. “There’s a high degree of professionalism. The irony of it all is that China is actually expanding its journalistic presence in the world at a time when the U.S. is contracting.”

Kato directs the Parvin Fellowship Program, run through the university, which began in 1980 as a way to bring young Chinese journalists to America and give them exposure to American journalism culture. Despite a history of tension between the media and the Chinese government, Kato recalls a history of strong, dedicated Chinese reporters.

Even during the days predating the communist takeover there were quite a few people from China whose interest in journalism was such that they travelled to the United States and elsewhere to study it,” Kato said.

A strong Chinese press seems to be an accurate and necessary reality, perfect for the news organizations in the absence of true foreign correspondents. Monte Reel, for instance, used to be a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post stationed in South America. But after Reel left the position, the Post decided a replacement was an extravagance it could not afford. In fact, while the Washington Post no longer has the correspondent resources to cover many areas of the world, Reel said, it’s using the resources it has left to try to keep up in Asia.

But even then, Reel acknowledged that the numbers of foreign correspondents in general are on the decline. “There is definitely a dwindling amount of resources that goes into foreign coverage in terms of mainstream media.”

Where mainstream media is failing, however, social media is coming to the fore as a source for citizen journalism and the spread of information. While many the Chinese government has a history of shutting down internet and arresting bloggers, Kato said government influence is not as restrictive of a factor on the ability of Chinese reporters to investigate as may be assumed. In actuality, he has seen social media directly influence government action and allowed to do so.

“They’ve let certain kinds of activity play themselves out,” Kato said. “The central government in some instances decides that they want some exposure of corruption, especially in the provinces. It may be a way of dealing with a problem out there.”

That said, Kato acknowledged that social media brings people together in a way that the government might not always approve.

“It’s sort of a double-edged sword here. As for the future, how effective the government can be in controlling social media is unsure.”

The spectre of censorship continues to be an important issue in the news reporting coming out of China. For that reason, if U.S. publications are to use local reporters as their primary resources in international reporting, the careers and safety of the journalists reporting to them are a primary reliability factor.

“They know there are certain kinds of limits imposed by the government of China,” Kato said of his students. “We’re not here to train them to be revolutionaries. I think all of them are very bright people. They are interested in having good careers in China. By that very fact they understand the limitations under which they work.”

That does not mean current Chinese reporting isn’t at a valuable level, Kato continued.

“There are journalists in China who are very courageous. They will do things and write things they know will get them in trouble. They will do whatever it takes for good journalism.”

So what does this mean for the future? With matters as they stand, the prospects are still somewhat ambiguous. With China’s tendency for censorship and Japan’s self-limiting media, it isn’t entirely clear how the growth of civilian media and the diminishing degree of international reporting will affect changes for the future. There is no doubt, however, that the way journalism evolves in the Asian political sphere will have lasting repercussions for journalism as a whole abroad.
Several possible models for moving forward present themselves; but of the many, three in particular seem likely.

The first option involves civilian journalism. Whether through blogs, crowdsourcing videos, or other direct reports, citizens who are not professional journalists have already made an impact on the effectiveness of journalism here in the U.S. In China, this type of content can be—and is—censored, but the question remains as to how long the government can continue to control what its citizens broadcast. It may be that the current system will erode over time, and pave the way for a new breed of journalism where citizens produce the majority of content, while professionals speculate and offer informative commentary.

“These new journalists are all very young, some of them in fact are employed in the new media part of the newspaper, so they probably know more about it than I do in some cases,” Kato said. “They know its uses in terms of how it can be used for distributing journalism and helping to gather information. And for that matter they’re smart enough to know how it can be used for political purposes.”

As such, another possibility is that this new generation of Chinese journalists will return to their native country and reform the media there from within. That way, the foreign news sections of U.S. papers can all access the relevant information from Asia without sacrificing resources by establishing and maintaining politically fragile bureaus they can no longer financially afford.

The final model—essentially what Luft works with and the current model—involves a select few foreign correspondents funded by major papers. The information from those reporters gets consolidated, organized by a content manager, and redistributed to newspapers around the country. While this model is cost-effective, it also may provide the weakest coverage, as only a narrow scope of the actual information can be observed by so few reporters.

Whichever model is best, it is certain that the stories in Asia and especially in China will not disappear or become less important. American news bureaus will have to respond accordingly.

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