Western Reporting on China Does Not Reflect Bias by Journalists, Asia Expert Says

Western journalists currently reporting in Asia do not have a bias against China, says veteran foreign correspondent Mike Chinoy.

Mike Chinoy speaking at Hong Kong University.

According to Chinoy, who served as CNN‘s Senior Asia Correspondent during his 30-year-plus career as a correspondent, China is a large and complicated country, which makes it a difficult place for reporters to cover.  There are language and cultural barriers and a lot that western journalists do not know about the country when they arrive.

As a result, he said, journalists get some stories right and other stories wrong.  But that is true for journalists anywhere in the world, he said, and not the result of a bias. What is sometimes perceived as bias is merely the uncovering of information that governments prefer to keep hidden.

“It’s not a political bias”, Chinoy said. “What a lot of reporters come from is a tradition where the role of a journalist is to explore issues in society, to shine light into the dark corners that powerful interests want [to keep under wraps], to hold people in power accountable, and to give accurate information and provide voices for the powerless. The media in the United States plays that role. But in China, that is not the role the media plays”.

Chinoy, who spoke on November 13 at the University of Hong Kong during a screening and discussion of a documentary film called ‘Assignment: China – China Watching’ sponsored by the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, said that he had not met one journalist during his years in Asia who was motivated by an agenda to make China look bad.

While western journalists may not currently be operating with a bias against China, however, the documentary makes the point that this was not always the case.

The documentary profiles the Hong Kong-based journalists who reported on China during the 1950s and 1960s, a time when foreign journalists were not allowed to enter the country. The film is one of what will eventually be nine hour-long episodes of a documentary series called ‘Assignment: China‘ that was written and reported by Chinoy on the history of American journalists in China from the 1940s to the present.

The time period covered by the documentary – from 1949, when Mao Zedong’s communists took power and barred foreign journalists from China, to the early 1970s – was the height of the Cold War, and a period when anti-communist sentiment in the United States was especially strong.  U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy exacerbated and exploited this sentiment during the 1950s, which also saw the Korean War, and some American journalists covering China at the time said they brought Cold War psychology to their reporting.

Rutherford Poats, who served as a foreign correspondent for United Press in Japan, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia from 1947 to 1951, told the filmmakers, “The McCarthy era influenced all media. No one wanted to be accused by the right wing fringe. Journalists and editors had to both feel and show an appreciation for the evil of China and communism”.

Murray Fromson, an Associated Press and CBS News Correspondent, told the filmmakers that “we looked at China through Cold War eyes”.

John Rich, who covered the Korean War for NBC News before reporting on China, said that the war had influenced his attitude toward the country. “They were the enemy”, he told the film’s interviewers. “And they were chasing us down the Korean peninsula”.

Audience at Hong Kong University

When asked if there might have been a similar bias behind reports that appeared in the Hong Kong press in 1997, expressing fear about the approaching handover to China, Chinoy said that that wasn’t necessarily media bias but a reflection of the uncertainty shared by the people of Hong Kong about what was going to happen.

“The 1989 crackdown [against student-led protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square] occurred only eight years before and led many people to leave Hong Kong”, he said. “There was a lot of anxiety and speculation about what would happen [after the handover] … The press were reflecting what they were hearing”.

In response to a question about the “China-bashing” that occurred during the recent U.S. presidential campaign, Chinoy said that kind of talk has been a tradition of American presidential campaigns going back at least to 1980. A candidate can score points by accusing his opponent of being soft on China, he said, but now that the election is over, President Barack Obama will probably seek to strengthen ties between the countries by reaching out to Xi Jinping, China’s new Communist Party chief and the man expected to assume the presidency.

Mike Chinoy, a Visiting Fulbright Fellow in Journalism, has been at the JMSC for the past month, teaching a course on covering North Korea and doing research for the ‘Assignment: China’ documentary series. He was CNN‘s Beijing Bureau Chief from 1987 to 1995, covering the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and also served as Hong Kong Bureau Chief.  He is currently a Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California‘s U.S.-China Institute (南加州大学美中学院).

Three of the episodes from the ‘Assignment: China‘ series may be viewed here.