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.

Wiest:

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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Conspiracies and the danger of releasing names (redux)

It never ceases to amaze me how people can whip up something sinister.

A blog out of Brazil sees all sorts of evilness in O Globo and with reporters talking to the US government.

Jornalista Willian Waack e as Relações Promíscuas da Globo com o Governo Americano (Journalist William Waack and promiscuous relations with the U.S. Government(Use Google Translate if your Portuguese is not up to snuff.) 

Once you get past all the “evil” of the size of O Globo

[D]ata for 2000 show that the TV station covers 100% of the country has 65% of the audience of the country, with the remainder divided among the other stations. Globo station is considered the third in size of audience in the world alongside the big three American NBC, ABC and CBS

Then you find the real complaint: Brazilian journalists talked to the US government about society and politics.

The write-up makes it sound as if TV journalist William Waak served as some sort of agent for the US government, gathering information and then reporting back to his “masters.” And this conclusion comes from US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.

From what I have seen in this report and from what I know about how the State Department works, there is nothing sinister in the meetings cited.

It is normal for US diplomats to seek out the opinions of journalists about social and political issues. Just as it is normal for these diplomats to talk to government leaders about the same things. I would think that the rest of the world would be happy that diplomats look for alternative views about what is going on in the countries to which they are assigned.

(I still recall the reaction after the State Department was caught flat-footed by the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. One US diplomat said: “What? You expect us to talk to workers?”)

In the past 25-30 years the State Department not only demands that its employees talk to workers but also to shop owners, church  leaders and (yes!) journalists. There is nothing sinister about journalists (or other sectors of society) — one on one or in groups — having off the record talks with diplomats. The exchange of ideas and information benefits both sides.

The reaction to Waak’s meetings with the US diplomats in Brazil is exactly why I am upset with how Wikileaks handled the cables. Would it really have been so bad, so difficult, to redact the names of the sources in the cables?

Overall, I like that the cables were released. These are hardly the Pentagon Papers — there were no secret plots to deceive the American people revealed in the cables as there was in the Pentagon Papers.

The cables released by Wikileaks show that most US diplomats reach out to many different parts of society in the countries where they are assigned. The cables show that serious thought and analysis goes into understanding what is going on and what it means for US relations with those countries.

What is inexcusable is releasing the names of the sources the US diplomats rely on for their information.

Even though a lot of the people named in the cables told AP they have no problem with their names being made public (AP review finds no threatened WikiLeaks sources), think of  the danger dissidents in countries like China and Zimbabwe. Or the problems releasing names has in legitimate counter-terrorism activities.

Those of us in journalism protect our confidential sources. We all have people as sources who do not want their names released. And we honor those confidences. Is it really too much to think that confidential sources in diplomatic cables should also be protected?

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Highest bar and journalism ethics

A friend in Hong Kong just did a review of the highest bar in the world, the OZONE on the 118th floor of the Ritz in Hong Kong. (At Hong Kong Hotel, the World’s Highest Bar)

A couple of things…

  1. She noted that the three highest bars are in Shanghai and Hong Kong, two cities getting more infamous for the high levels of air pollution. (For a reaction to the pollution issue see: Tweets about Bad Air.)
  2. At the end of her extended comments about the bar Joyce noted: “I’ve heard some people here grumbling about the service. We were actually well served and treated. And, no — it wasn’t a press thingie. We went as normal diners and paid our own bill.”
Let’s talk about last item.
For American journalists there never would be any need to mention that a reviewer bad his/her own way. (Or at least had the news organization pay.) That is not the case around the world. And that is something American journalists have to understand.
During a panel discussion on ethics in journalism I chaired many years ago in Hong Kong for the Foreign Correspondents Club the differences between the American and European and Hong Kong journalists about what was ethical behavior was interesting. One Hong Kong journalist noted that if reporters did not get free tickets to movies or free meals at restaurants, there would be very few reviews in the Hong Kong media. American panelists expressed dismay at this position but recognized that — let’s face it there is no other way to say it — Hong Kong publishers are cheap.
The American panelists replied that if the only options were to accept a free ticket/meal or do no review, there would not be a review. For the Americans there was a clear bright line about what was allowed and what wasn’t. For the Hong Kongers the line was more muddled.
So to a U.S. eye, there are serious ethical problems with Hong Kong journalism. Yet, at the same time, Hong Kong journalists are the ONLY journalists in land controlled by Beijing that are not reined in by the government. The journalists in the Special Administrative Region are fiercely independent and (for the most part) willing to take on anyone and any government.
Joyce’s comment about who paid for the dinner is a good place to start for globally minded journalists to look for ways to discuss differences and similarities in how we do our jobs around the world.
(BTW, every journalist I knew in Hong Kong while I was there adhered strictly to the U.S. rule of accept no freebies. And at sometimes it was a shock to our European and Asian colleagues.)

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