Adversarial journalism in the coverage of China

Dec 10, 2019

Australian media’s coverage of China has shifted to adversarial journalism. To change this status quo requires leadership and serious action.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a very noticeable shift in the Australian media’s coverage of China. This is a shift from a kind of journalism that aspires to the practice of objective reporting to a particular kind of ‘adversarial journalism’. It is important to note here that, in this case, being adversarial is not about being a ‘watch dog’ over the government or being ‘the fourth estate’, with a core mission of ‘keeping the bastards honest’.

Instead, it refers to a kind of reporting that takes as given that the foreign country being reported on is a hostile nation, and that therefore the accepted ways of reporting on it are adversarial in a pre-determined way. This adversarial perspective not only dictates what kinds of stories readers should hear and read about China, but it also dictates how these stories are told. This kind of reporting follows such a predictable script that it is now providing fodder for satire and comedy.

In objective reporting, journalists follow the story and see where it leads, whereas in adversarial reporting, journalists take the story where they want it to go. The Sydney Morning Herald’s advertisement offers a taster: ‘If Beijing’s ambition affects Australia’s future, you deserve to know.’ In exposing Beijing’s ambitions, the Herald promises to ‘shine a light on hidden influences’, using ‘hard news to expose soft power’. And in order to achieve this, The Herald promises that ‘we do whatever it takes to break the stories’.

In the history of journalism, this kind of adversarial journalism is often associated with the Cold War era or, in a contemporary context, with the reporting of terrorist states and organizations.

The implicit assumption is that China is a hostile nation, and that if you operate with such an assumption, then the ritual of objective reporting, which requires an attempt at balance and the provision of evidence supporting your reporting, is no longer necessary.

This shift results in the blurring of the boundary between fact and opinion, between evidence and hunch. It gives permission for what I’ve called insinuative journalism, or even down-right speculation. A recent example comes from ABC Radio’s Background Briefing program, a special episode on Chinese influence in Australia. Note what the reporter says about the November 2018 cyber attack on the ANU: ‘The VC [of the ANU] doesn’t know who was behind the attack. And it’s important to note that we don’t either. …the resources required to pull it off suggests a nation state is responsible. And in that narrow field, China is at the top of the list’. This has gone beyond insinuative journalism and has now ventured into the territory of guesswork camouflaged as investigative journalism. It’s a speech act aiming to declare rather than to prove. This shift also gives permission for what has been called ‘access journalism’, as recently discussed by Peter Manning: a kind of reporting in which the journalist unwittingly plays the role of mouthpiece for some government agency or other body to which she or he appears to have ‘exclusive access’.

It is indeed ironic that, while the media accuse the security and intelligence establishment of infringing on the media’s freedom on certain issues, when it comes to China that same establishment is the media’s best friend, and their reporting largely reproduces a security and intelligence perspective, with little, if any, interrogation of that perspective.

It’s important to note that adversarial journalism is not just about negative reporting, or stories that are critical of China. Australia’s media are routinely critical of everyone and everything, including our own government and politicians. Being able to say negative and critical things is a sign of a healthy media sector at work in a democracy. Rather, adversarial journalism about China involves the adoption of a pre-determined news-making agenda that privileges a particular point of view – in this case, that of the security and intelligence establishment – at the expense of other perspectives, and the consequently narrow framework for selecting what to cover and how to cover it.

Some may argue that the Australian media already achieve a balance since, on average, they publish more stories about trade and business than about security and intelligence. Indeed, the ABC recently published a chart indicating that, over the past 12 months, there were far more stories on trade than on security issues – or on any other issues, for that matter. However, it’s not the sheer quantity of content that matters so much; rather, it’s how that content is framed, and where it is physically located in the newspaper or on the website – where it sits in the hierarchy of prominence and importance. Most stories on trade are – unsurprisingly – published in the business section of the papers, not in the general news and commentary sections at the front of the paper that are more commonly read by the majority of readers. Rarely do items about trade make it onto the front page of mainstream newspapers unless they involve some scandal, or have the capacity to generate anxiety or alarm in readers. Furthermore, many other news topics – such as Hong Kong, Australian universities and Chinese students, education, the military, defence, Huawei, espionage, hacking and human rights – are typically selected and written up on the basis of a pre-determined frame of ‘Chinese influence and threat’. Even then, they are mostly reported on from the perspective of their implications for Australia’s national security.

What this kind of adversarial reporting also does is a form of ‘internal othering’ – the discursive disenfranchisement of Chinese-speaking communities in Australia. While the media tend to focus on human rights violations that are happening in China, the human and citizen’s rights of Chinese Australians are downplayed. By imagining them mostly in the role of agents of the Chinese government or by casting doubt on their political allegiances, they’re reduced to individuals without any cultural, emotional or cognitive conflicts and ambivalence. The logic is clear: you are either with us or against us.

The current status quo is not inevitable. It can be changed, but in order to change it, two things need to happen. First, media managers and editors – senior people who have the vision and big picture – need to muster the political will to bring about change. Second, many journalists who practise adversarial journalism need to come to terms with the fact that they are actually human beings, not superheros. Many of these reporters genuinely believe that they are doing important work – pursing The Truth, defending democracy and exposing dark, hidden forces. And in some cases, as history has shown us, they are. However, while aiming high is commendable, these journalists may find that a little humility, self-reflection and self-doubt are healthy for the quality of their journalism.

But assuming that there are media practitioners and organizations willing to explore ways of improving their coverage of China, here is a general recommendation, plus four specific suggestions.

The general recommendation is that there be a review of the current editorial policies and practices of the major media outlets in their coverage of China, with input from various stakeholders. Since the ABC has tended to embody the symptoms of the problem rather than leading the way towards healthier and more sustainable journalistic practices, it seems that this task may be best undertaken by an independent body such as the Judith Nielsen Institute. While coverage of China’s treatment of the Uighurs, the violent protests in Hong Kong and the persecution of political dissidents is crucial, there is a need to broaden the Australian media’s coverage of censorship and human rights to present a more complex picture of the challenges and opportunities that a rising China brings to Australians. The Australian public deserves to get a much wider picture of the political, social and economic reality of contemporary China. For instance, there needs to be more coverage of the rising level of social inequality, the environmental problems caused by excessive development, and how ordinary people get on with their lives in a nation that has one-party rule while also practising market neoliberalism.

The following four specific recommendations may also be useful:

  1. Our major media organizations should develop – and follow – a set of guidelines about what constitutes ‘best practice’ in China coverage – particularly regarding such matters as whom to approach for comments and quotes, what ‘objective reporting’ means for coverage of China, and how to ensure balance, fairness and a reliance on evidence in the construction of news narratives.
  2. Our major media organizations should develop – and use – a comprehensive database of qualified China Studies experts for backgrounding and fact-checking their stories, and that practitioners develop an ongoing dialogue with this scholarly community. These media organizations should discontinue the practice of relying on a small number of ‘one-size-fits-all’ sinologists as their sources for quotes and comments. The field of China Studies comprises scholars of a wide variety of disciplines. A historian is not necessarily equipped to comment on, say, security matters. Conversely, a security expert, especially one who doesn’t read or speak any Chinese and has no track record in doing research in the Chinese context, should not be expected to be an authoritative voice on, say, China’s history of nationalism. Journalists need to recognise that reporting on China requires specialist knowledge, and that getting the right expertise – rather than a ‘quick quote’ – is crucial.
  3. Our major media organizations should put in place a mechanism that reaches out to and ensures wide-ranging and ongoing consultation and conversations with various Chinese communities in Australia, especially the Mandarin speaking community. This is to ensure that their voices are heard and included in any coverage of stories about China or Chinese-Australian communities. So far, these communities have largely remained a silent majority of Chinese-Australian citizens, and the media need to realise that the best way to encourage their political engagement and allegiance is to re-imagine them as ‘one of us’, not ‘one of them’.
  4. Our major media organizations should develop guidelines for framing the notion of ‘national interest’ in our media’s coverage of China. Adversarial reporting of China is often justified in terms of the national interest. But perspectives from business, trade, the education sector and the diplomatic community – not to mention the 1.2 million Chinese migrants of various political stripes – all should play a role in defining what constitutes the national interest, in addition to those perspectives that frequently dominate current media coverage, such as the security/intelligence community and backbencher politicians.

China is too important to Australia for the Australian media not to get it right. The Australian public deserves better.

Wanning Sun FAHA is Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Technology Sydney.

The above was a presentation that Professor Wanning Sun gave to the Australian Strategic Forum 0n 18 November 2019 in Sydney

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