Tag Archives: Ethics

Britain to change libel laws

Free expression fans are happy that the British libel laws are getting an overhaul.

One of the big items is so-called “libel tourism.” This has been a growing concern. Foreigners have been using British courts and libel laws to attack critics  when the complaints have little connection to Britain.

The practice has had a chilling effect on authors, journalists and bloggers who try to publish sensitive material about companies, wealthy individuals or anyone with enough money to launch a lawsuit. (And people think the US is litigious.)

It seems that truth will actually play a role in the libel law reforms.

Under U.S. libel law, as I understand it, truth is an absolute defense against libel or slander. In other words, if I can prove that John Smith is a lying, tax-cheating bigamist, he cannot sue me for libel.

Under existing British law, however, (and this extends to many of the Commonwealth countries and Hong Kong), if a person can prove that words as printed have the potential to be harmful, he can sue for libel.

So, if that same John Smith mentioned above can show that even one person will think less of him because of what I print, and even if I can prove he is a lying, tax-cheating bigamist, he can sue me.

I saw this happen regularly in Hong Kong. A newspaper of questionable ethical standards would sue anyone and everyone who criticized the paper for its poor journalism. The paper just as regularly lost its cases — the judges would often dismiss the complaints as nuisance cases — but it would cost the critic loads of money in legal fees. So eventually people were afraid to complain about the paper.

Nice step forward U.K.

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English media: For better or verse

Great piece pointed out by Roy Greenslade at The Guardian. Well worth the few minutes to watch.

The Sun’s witchcraft – by Charlie Brooker

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Gallup: People say it’s important. So why aren’t they getting it?

A recent survey by Gallup shows just what Americans think about the U.S. position in the world and what is vital to America.

When asked “how important do you think what happens in each of the following countries is to the United States today,” the percentage of people who answered “Vitally Important” or “Important but not vital” showed a marked interest in these countries.

  • Afghanistan: 81%
  • Canada: 77%
  • China: 92%
  • Cuba: 72%
  • India: 77%
  • Mexico: 84%
  • North Korea: 83%
  • Pakistan: 79%
  • Venezuela: 67%

Please note that Cuba and Venezuela showed the lowest amount of importance, despite the shrill sounds coming from certain politicians.

In December 2010  people were asked Do you think the United States does or does not have a special responsibility to be the leading nation in world affairs?

  • Yes, has special responsibility: 66%
  • No, does not: 31%
  • No opinion: 3%

In February 2008, Gallup asked about building democracy in other countries.

  • Very important: 24%
  • Somewhat important: 43%
  • Not too important: 22%
  • Not important at all: 10%
  • No opinion: 2%
Two-thirds of the American people think the United States has a special responsibility to be a leading nation in world affairs. Another two-thirds think it is important to help build democracies in other countries.
Please explain, if you can, why almost that same percentage — 65% — in February 2009 say the United States spends too much on foreign aid.
  • Too little: 6%
  • About the right amount: 21%
  • Too much: 65%
  • No opinion: 8%

Maybe because the American people really have no idea how much is really spent of foreign aid. Most Americans think 25% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid.

FYI: All of the non-military foreign affairs budget — that is the State Department, foreign development assistance, commercial affairs, agriculture, international law enforcement/training, etc. accounts for about 1% of the total US budget. And that number has been pretty consistent for several years.

I am not surprised at the split personality results of the people wanting to have the US play a major role in the world but not being willing to pay for it. We see that same issue in domestic policy. But at least in domestic issues there are thousands of words written to discuss the issues, the costs and the conflicts.

Unfortunately in foreign affairs the word count is much lower and what does appear usually does not make it to most medium or small media markets.

The American people in all parts of the country want information about what is happening around the world. They want to know how those global events affect them in their towns and states. In my journalism classes, I told my students that telling people why a story was important to them is called context.

Unfortunately we are missing not only the stories but more importantly the context of those stories that do get published/aired.

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Pay for play journalism trial in India starts

It is hardly unique to India. But there is some movement in the issue of news organizations accepting payment from politicians or businesses to ensure “proper” coverage.

Seems an enterprising  freelancer in India approached a newspaper in Goa as a local politician asking for favorable coverage. According to the reporter’s blog, the “politician” offered a total of US$2,700 for articles and cable TV interviews.

The editor of the news organization is suing the reporter for defamation.

Indian paid-journalism sting prompts defamation trial

As I said, this allegation is not unique to India.

In China it was (maybe still is) common practice for Chinese companies and government agencies to provide cash to reporters at press conferences.

This practice came to the attention of the West light several years ago when a Chinese company gave the Western journalists the “hong bao” (red envelope) with cash inside. When the Western reporters asked about the cash, the Chinese PR person said it was standard practice to provide money to make sure the story was published the “right way.”

The reporting on that practice in the Western press got the Beijing authorities all upset. They officially launched a campaign to clean up journalism in China. Officially they banned the use of the hong bao but I am told there are still ways for companies to “express their hopes of a good story.”

While the practice of offering the hong bao may still be around, the practice of accepting the money is reportedly fading. At least among the growing number of Chinese journalists who are pushing the envelope on good journalism in China.

And don’t think the US or the UK are exempt from this problem. In the US it is called “”checkbook journalism.” In the UK a common phrase is “cash-for-trash” as practiced by Rupert Murdoch and his empire.

The bottom line is that pay for play journalism is bad not only for the profession but also for democratic institutions. (So no problem in China.) An August 2010 report from the Press Council of India called the practice of “paid news” in the country “pervasive, structured and highly organised” and that it was “undermining democracy in India.”

And given the latest campaign against corruption in India, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

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China’s intellectual gap with America

This has nothing to do with who is smarter but rather who is more willing to learn about the other.

Great little piece in Caixin called The Closing of Chinese Minds.

What makes it even more interesting is that Caixin is a mainland China news organization.

The publication has a history of being a thorn in the side of China’s political and business leadership. Besides the stories it publishes, Caixin puts online reporters’ notes and all the documents used to back up the story. And with more Chinese turning to the Internet to get news, Caixin fills an important gap in information.

Caixin editor Hu Shuli

The editor in chief of Caixin Hu Shu Li told an audience at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’s Club this past summer that independent and ethical journalism is vital.

“What the public demand and deserve is the right to know,” she told the FCC audience. “More than ever the public needs the media to present the hard facts with all the complexities and nuances.”

FYI: Caixin recently published a story with back-up documents that showed high-speed rail designer  Zhang Shuguang owns a US$800,000 (7.12 million RMB) home near Los Angeles on a monthly salary of 2,200 RMB.

But, let’s get back to that intellectual gap.

Just before Christmas, Caixin published the The Closing of Chinese Minds column.

Journalists Nailene Chou Wiest noted how China has pulled back from trying to understand more about how American society and politics work.

“…the more the Chinese think they know about America, the greater their incapacity to change their prejudices. Conspiracy theories, such as the notion the CIA maintains an office in every CNN bureau, abound.”

Nailene Chou Wiest

She starts her story with how “in 1979 a group of Chinese editors was about to visit the United States. Asked what they would like to see, one solemnly replied: ‘We want to know how the party secretary of New York controls The New York Times.’”

To correct the situation exemplified by the editors in 1979, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences inaugurated the Institute of American Studies in 1981. China was eager to learn from the U.S. American foundations reciprocated by providing generous funding and resources. By the mid-1990s, however, the interest narrowed to Sino-American diplomatic relations.

I saw this lack of understanding first hand in 1992 when the US Information Agency library in Shanghai provided live satellite feeds of the U.S. presidential election returns. Chinese journalists on hand could not understand how ABC could have different numbers for the presidential vote than CBS or NBC. Adding to their confusion was the fact that none of the numbers were being cleared by an agency in Washington.

The misunderstandings continue.


In my field, many journalists and journalism professors have been invited to visit the U.S. They have enhanced American scholars’ understanding of the changing Chinese media landscape, but their own comprehension of the American media remains at the textbook level. While the legend of Walter Cronkite as the iconic TV anchor lives on, few have heard of Bill O’Reilly or have an inkling that the conservative made a highly successful industry out of talk radio and the Fox News Channel. Still bashing corporate greed for killing the American news media, they seem oblivious to the assault on media profits by technological changes that have made some quality media outfits more like millstones around the necks of their owners than cash cows. Relying on a few translated volumes of media studies, or, worse, polemics in the Chinese press, they are out of touch with the American reality.

She points out that the Chinese sent to the United States under the institute’s aegis now go so that Americans can learn about China, not so the Chinese can better understand the United States.

It is ironic. After all, to hear many of the political voices in the United States today the issue is similar. These xenophobic Americans care little about learning about other societies or cultures. Too many average Americans agree.

Personal note: I still recall with horror how in the summer of 2000 (or so) when we told a shop owner in Michigan that we lived in Hong Kong, he paused and then asked, “That’s in Ohio, right?”

In a democracy, the people set the tone for what the government does. An uninformed or ill-informed public can lead to disastrous results. Maybe not a full-scale ware but economic and social upheaval are possible. (And it doesn’t help when political leaders think foreign policy can be handled with an electrified fence and over-sized military.)

News organizations can help. And — here comes that old argument again — it can be done without having to go overseas.

The immigrant communities in the United States can provide valuable insights other cultures.

Investments in the United States by companies from other countries tell tales of linkages and connections that can be seen on a local level. (Think of all the Ohioans who have a job because Honda — of Japan — opened factories in that state.)

All it takes is a little imagination by editors and reporters to see the global-local link.

Or, we could just go down the road of China (modern and historic) and not think there is anything worth learning from outsiders.

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