Michener Fellowship: September – December 1995
The Michener Fellowship has been a wonderful beginning for me, the beginning of what I believe is going to be a lifelong interest in journalism ethics and multiculturalism. I have met some wonderful people, and have used corners of my brain I didn’t even know were there.
Home base for my Fellowship was an office in the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Applied Ethics. Most of the Centre’s members are philosophers, a discipline I’ve only previously dabbled in at an undergraduate level, and one of the highlights of my Fellowship was auditing a graduate philosophy class called Professional Ethics taught by the Centre’s director, Professor Michael McDonald. Reading and talking about the ethics of fields as diverse as teaching, nursing, engineering and journalism was tremendously stimulating, and I came away from many a class with new thoughts about journalism as a profession, and the things it does – and doesn’t – share with other fields of endeavour.
My primary interest, however, remains true to my original proposal for this fellowship: the “cultural relativism” of journalism ethics, that is whether the value decisions we make as journalists vary from culture to culture. I’m particularly intrigued by the concept of privacy, by where we draw the line between the public’s right to know and an individual’s right to privacy. Would I draw that line differently if I were a Japanese journalist working in Japan? Or a Chinese journalist working in Chinese media in Canada? Or a Sikh journalist working in a so-called “mainstream” Canadian media organization? The value systems of three potentially different cultures come into play: that of the journalist as an individual, of the newsroom in which the journalist works, and of the readers and viewers. Of course there may be substantial difference between what the media organization perceives the values of its audience to be, and what they really are. Since no audience is homogeneous, no audience will have one common value system, although “Ten Commandment-style” values, like the condemnation of murder, may be universal.
If the drawing of ethical lines is influenced by culture, what are the implications for the vast majority of Canadian journalists who are white, middle-class, and largely unacquainted with the value systems of other cultures? I assume that they would do a better job of covering our increasingly multicultural society if they were more familiar with the history, religion, and belief systems of various cultures. I don’t assume that white journalists should necessarily tailor their stories to particular cultural audiences, leaving out – for example – certain elements that might be offensive in some cultures. But I do assume that knowing what would be considered offensive in the first place would lead to better reporting through more incisive questioning and better rapport with story sources. I also assume that better reporting of multicultural communities would be of interest to the employers of white journalists, those media organizations trying to figure out how to bolster dwindling numbers of readers, viewers and listeners by tapping into the potentially huge multicultural audiences.
Prior to embarking on research of my own, I used the resources of the university to help me figure out how and what to tackle. I attended anthropology classes on family and kinship, as I felt that many of the lines we draw around a cultural notion of privacy are really lines drawn around the family unit. I spoke with sociologists about research design, about the differences between quantitative and qualitative research, and about how to conduct focus groups. I attended a seminar on media responsibility and ethics, and another given by former Chinese journalist Wanning Sun entitled Telling the Truth the Chinese Way. Wanning, who is now a professor of cultural studies in Australia, gave a fascinating account of the differences in the way information is produced and consumed in China and in the West. She pointed out that although there have been huge changes in Chinese media in the 1980s and 90s, with the rapid development of a commercial press, media are still very much under the control of the state.
There is no muckraking in Chinese journalism, no understanding of the press as the “watchdog” of the society as it is in the West. To consume Chinese media one has to basically decode it, to read between the lines in much the same way one would read a roman a clef. Long before newspapers even existed in China, Chinese writing depended on symbolism and historical allegories to make its point, and that tradition continues today. Journalism is often heavily didactic, with anecdotes used to teach the values that should, in the view of the state, be held by the readers. Huge media campaigns are built around individual heroic acts, which are used to set examples for collective action. Sometimes this lionizing of altruism can backfire, as in the story of the man who allegedly jumped into a nightsoil pit to save someone who had fallen in. Media celebration of this selfless act led to others also jumping into nightsoil pits – and dying. The media then published a round of self-criticism for having celebrated the act in the first place.
Wanning’s central point is that people from different societies deal with the “truth” in different ways. She believes that the Chinese audience is more sophisticated – by virtue of experience – than the Western audience in figuring out the truth of a reported story, but that Western journalists are more sophisticated and diligent than Chinese journalists in reporting it. Chinese media emphasize positive reporting: for example, coverage in The People’s Daily, the state newspaper, of the recent women’s conference in Beijing emphasized stories on happy delegates from Tibet, and delegates from India and Thailand who were very pleased with their accommodation. Alert readers would deduce that the fact that those stories were even written meant that the opposite was in fact true. As Wanning pointed out, conventional content analysis could never capture the true meaning of Chinese journalism.
Earlier in the fellowship, before I heard Wanning Sun speak, I was a panelist at a public forum in Vancouver called Unheard Voices: Forum on Racial Harmony. It was held by SUCCESS, the United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society, in response to concern about media coverage of the Chinese community. One of the articles that had upset some people reported on so-called “white flight”, or the exodus of white residents out of suburbs that are increasingly populated by Asians. It seemed that many of the Chinese readers of the article assumed that the writer was endorsing the “white flight” by virtue of the fact that she had written about it. After hearing Wanning Sun, I wondered how much of a role the tradition of Chinese journalism as a teaching instrument, and as a publisher of largely positive, inspiring stories, played in the expectations the Chinese community in Vancouver has of the media here.
The question of the unspoken contract between the media and their consumers, of the expectations that the audience brings with it to each medium, kept coming up in my research. Although it may seem a very different question than that of whether journalism ethics vary culture to culture, I think that in fact they’re part of the same equation. If a media outlet is going to make ethical decisions based – at least in part – on what it believes its audience will find acceptable, or in other words on what will be deemed appropriate by community standards, then it must have a sense of just who that “community” is, and what values it holds. And the members of that community bring their value systems with them when they read the paper or watch the newscast, expecting to find the “truth” about their community in the stories within.
I decided that my original proposal – to do a series of focus groups with media consumers about their reactions to stories containing ethical dilemmas for journalists – should be in fact the third part of a larger research project. It seemed to make more sense to start my research with journalists, in particular with ethnic media journalists; then broaden to include white, “mainstream” journalists in discussion with the ethnic media journalists about journalism ethics; then conclude with discussions with media consumers from various cultures. So I proceeded to conduct one-on-one interviews with journalists from Chinese and South Asian media outlets in Vancouver, people who set the journalistic policy for their organizations. We talked about ethical dilemmas they have encountered, about how they would handle various case examples, and about their reaction to the mainstream media in Vancouver and how their community is – or isn’t – reflected there.
What emerged, from my point of view, was a very interesting picture of a kind of journalism very different from the mainstream. It comes together best through one case example: the story of a 22-year-old man shot and killed one evening in Vancouver. He was a member of the South Asian community (or “Indo-Canadian” community, the term widely used in British Columbia), and allegedly a drug dealer. The editor of a biweekly Indo-Canadian newspaper told me that his paper had prepared a story on the killing, but just before going to press he received a call from a member of the dead man’s family, asking him not to print the story because the man’s parents hadn’t known he was part of the drug trade. The caller said printing the story would bring shame to the man’s family, and ruin their reputation in the community. The editor decided immediately not to run the story, and stands by that decision today. He explained that his paper needs to be “sensitive” to its community, and that the value to the paper of running the story does not outweigh the hurt it would bring to the family.
Another journalistic leader in the Indo-Canadian community agreed, pointing out that in their community the reputation of the parents is built virtually entirely on the actions of their children. Some Chinese journalists agreed with the decision not to publish as well, saying their organizations would have done the same, or published the story without the young man’s name. They gave the same reason – the importance of the family in their culture, and of the extreme shame this story would bring to the young man’s parents, causing them to lose “face” in their community.
Not all ethnic media journalists I spoke with agreed with the decision not to publish the story. One editor of a Chinese daily newspaper said he would have printed the story with the name, and if the family was prominent in the community he would have played the story even higher and bigger. He commented that in Hong Kong, where he is from and where his paper has its head office, journalism is very aggressive and even more “muckraking” than it is in North America. But he also lamented the lack of “positive” stories in the mainstream Canadian media, and said his paper tries to print as many of them as possible. It is possible that the apparent reluctance of the majority of Asian journalists I spoke with to publish stories that would have negative consequences for members of their community has nothing to do with culture, and everything to do with being relatively small media outlets that are much closer to their communities. However, it should be noted that the three Chinese daily newspapers in Vancouver are each thicker than The Vancouver Sun, and don’t consider themselves small community papers at all. Also, a fascinating conference I attended during the fellowship on cross-cultural ethics in health care reinforced the cultural differences – especially between Asian and Western cultures – surrounding issues like illness, death, sexuality, and the privacy and sanctity of the family.
All of the ethnic media journalists I spoke with lamented the lack of coverage of their communities in the mainstream media. They all stressed the importance of having Chinese or South Asian reporters on staff, reporters who can speak the languages of the community and thus gain better access. Many felt that the mainstream press is too quick to print negative stories about multicultural communities, in particular that they stress the ethnic origin of the participants in crime stories. Although much has been written elsewhere about the stereotypical representation of multicultural communities in the media, and thus wasn’t really the focus of my research, one aspect of this complaint intrigues me. If ethnic media are not generally inclined to write negative articles about their community, or stories that will embarrass its members, what effect does that have on expectations of the mainstream media? Do consumers have different sets of expectations of their own community papers than they do of the major English-language papers? If they don’t, what are the implications? As one editor of an Indo-Canadian paper said, “If you read two newspapers that give two completely different pictures of the same event, readers would obviously feel that there is an element of racism here.”
Obviously I’m still asking as many questions, if not more, than I’m answering. That’s one of the reasons why I consider the Michener Fellowship to have been a marvellous beginning. This spring I intend to proceed to part two of my research, gathering together a group of journalists from many cultures for what I hope will be a wide-ranging discussion (or discussions!) of journalism ethics. And further down the road I will tackle the focus groups of media consumers, also from many different cultures, to test my hypotheses about the different expectations people bring to journalism, and to its ethical dilemmas.
All along, my own intended audience has been other white journalists, whom I hope to convince to learn more about the history, religion and beliefs of other cultures so that they can become better reporters. My sense is that we (meaning white, mainstream journalists) are at the same point now, writing about multicultural communities, that we were at writing about women’s issues fifteen years ago. We’ve learned a lot about sensitivity towards women and gender issues since then, and now it’s time – or past time – to do the same with regard to Canada’s multicultural communities.
Thank you so much for the Michener Fellowship – it was a wonderful opportunity, an opportunity to drink in the university environment, to talk to some thought-provoking people I never would have met otherwise, and to develop an interest in cross-cultural ethics that will stay with me for a very long time. It was a gift.