Journalism, China, and Merton’s Law

In the Hutong
Struggling with November
2009 hrs.

The monitoring and censorship of China’s Internet is a matter of continuous outrage and fascination for audiences outside of China. And why not? It is superb theater. It pits the world’s extremist information libertarians against a faceless bureaucracy seeking to control information flow, and it provides a public forum to watch and gauge China’s evolving polity. As a result, the topic is of great interest to reporters covering China.

Most of the time, the attention journalists give to this ideological tug-of-war is either good, or at worst harmless. But there is one type of story that, when reporters cover it, they have the potential of doing a great deal of harm: what I call “loophole stories.”

Guess Who’s Reading Your Story?

Recently a reporter for a large global wire service ran a story wherein he/she revealed that owners of Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader devices in China could use the device’s built-in browser and circumvent the systems put in place by Chinese authorities to restrict access to websites deemed unsuitable for local audiences. The story has run, at my last count, in over 150 publications and websites in English alone around the world.

I understand the urges that motivated that reporter to cover the story: the sheer glee that China’s regulators had been foiled again, and the urge to pander to readers who would read the story as a triumph of technology over censorship.

But the consequences of running that story will be something else altogether.

Translators working at the Xinhua News Service, China’s wire service agency directly subordinate to the State Council Information Office, will see the story as they monitor the global news wires to which Xinhua subscribes. They will translate the story and, rather than run it over their own wire, they will include the piece among the stories that will be passed as a part of a daily internal briefing to the senior leaders of the government and Party.

Once the pesky loophole is called to the attention of the senior leadership, it must be dealt with, if for no other reason than to prove that the nation’s regulators are not the Keystone Kops the story implied they were. A way will be found to isolate Amazon’s Whispernet network and block it in China.

Loophole closed.

Congratulations, intrepid reporter. You will have assisted the authorities in making the censorship lid on China’s Internet all that much tighter. If it was your intention to do so, job well done. Your fellow foreign correspondents will, I am sure, be so proud.

Knowing When NOT to File

The pressures on a modern journalist, especially a wire service journalist, are brutal. Not only do you need to make sure you have every worthwhile story on your beat, you must also ensure that you file before everyone else. There is not a lot of time to weigh the moral and ethical issues around any given story.

But in a place like China, where the unintended consequences of a story could range from the infuriating to the downright deadly, those consequences must be understood and weighed. And when you have a doubt, you must have the courage to spike the story.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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9 Responses to Journalism, China, and Merton’s Law

  1. gregorylent says:

    loophole stories are such a sign of unconsciousness that nothing that reporter ever writes in the future should be read

  2. Myrick says:

    David, in defense of the reporter: I would absolutely have run with the story. I often have griped about news media naming sources in China articles when I thought caution would have been better. But for Kindle or iTunes stories, with no names mentioned about ‘who’ is downloading banned books, I couldn’t care less. No individual is getting arrested. The GFW loophole is momentarially shut, unless it’s worthwhile for Amazon or Apple to reopen a new one (and it’s not).
    Thus, the result of the story is that a small selection of the very few people in China who pay for content — for e-books no less — can no longer do so. Big deal!
    Either download your content illegally, as most people in China do, or launch a VPN and use your credit card for business as usual. Or, perhaps, Western media should avoid all stories that may cause any minor inconvenience for China’s small number of Kindle owners?

    • David Wolf says:

      Chris, for me it is less this incident than the principle that needs to be established. At what point does the need to keep open the loopholes in the GFW override the journalistic imperative?

      As I read your thoughts, a long as only “a small selection of very few people,” it’s okay to flag the hole in the wall. But how many people does this need to affect before you don’t run with the story? And why that number?

    • Richard Ford says:

      It isn’t about the Kindle…. it is about the tactless approach of some people to a delicate situation and their inability to play out all the moves and strategies available to both sides of the game. Nash would not be happy!

  3. Richard Ford says:

    Back at Uni in the colleges there – they started to block and then charge for internet. Because the university would charge the colleges. So while campus wide network worked – the net did not. This is 1995.

    People would find proxy servers running in different research schools that were open and would use them.

    We KNEW not to tell or brag that we had it. Because a few people using one proxy is under the radar. If a research school is suddenly given a big bill for their internet use – then they go to find out why. And the proxies get locked down or closed off.

  4. Martin says:

    Interesting suggestion to use some kind of self censorship to battle official censorship. Besides, it doesn’t matter if a journalist runs the story, or if someone on some forum or social media service runs it. Either way, the new way to leap over the Great Fire Wall will find its way to the Chinese government censorship guys pretty fast anyway.

    And as soon as that happens and the gap is filled, it is up to others to find yet another new way. And so the story continues endlessly, with the official censorship guys always running after the facts. It is quite analogue to the ongoing battle between hackers and computer data protectors.

    Are there any stories on this website about the domination of world press by western press agencies by the way? And what the effects of it are? And why this dominance has still not changed significantly?

    • David Wolf says:

      Martin, there is a difference in China between the government knowing something of dubious legality exists unofficially and letting it continue, and being compelled to take official notice of that issue and thus having to do something about it. As long as nobody talks about it, enforcers do not feel compelled to take action. Once it is raised to a sufficient profile, the Bureaucratic Survival Imperative takes over, ad enforcers must act to preserve their jobs.

      Major global news coverage brings a loophole to official attention. While I agree that the technological didactic will continue, I see no reason to rush the process. Do you?

      And no, I have not written about the dominance of the world press by western press agencies. I would say, however, that the rise of the Internet and the globalization of agencies from emerging markets (think Xinhua, XFN, and Al-Jazeera) are eroding whatever dominance those wires once held.

  5. Myrick says:

    “As I read your thoughts, a long as only “a small selection of very few people,” it’s okay to flag the hole in the wall. But how many people does this need to affect before you don’t run with the story? And why that number?”
    Paradoxically, my judgement would be that the fewer people who are using a loophole the less interest it would be from a news perspective. Kindle doesn’t retail over here so it’s basically a tech-geek story involving a small grey market. The AFP story I read was citing Chinese Twitter users recommending the device… obviously a group who is pretty adept at avoiding the GFW to begin with. It’s tech-blog fodder for sure, but — aside from Amazon being involved– I would question why this would even be worth reporting for a major wire.
    However, if a significant number of Chinese (or Iranian) people were using a service to avoid censorship (i.e., Twitter, YouTube) then it would be a bigger story, even though the inevitable blockage of services would inconvenience far more people.
    So, reporting on a hole in the GFW that only a few people are using (i.e., tech geeks and business travelers) is not a big story and the subsequent blockage of the service is not an exceptionally big deal. Reporting on a hole in the GFW that a large number of people are using is big story, and the subsequent blockage of services would be a big deal.
    (My earlier comment could thus be qualified: “I would absolutely have run with the story, but only if it were a very slow news day and only because Amazon is a major company.”)

    • David Wolf says:

      “Only if it were a very slow news day.” LOL.

      There is no easy answer, as I see it. Frankly, I’ve been surprised to find so as many Chinese as I have using Kindle – coincidentally just had coffee with one yesterday. I think there is another side to the question of number of users: the Chinese people in China are just the sorts of people the Party wants happy and on-side. As the ranks of the executive corps (white collar and pink collar) swell with the net-savvy, frustrating access will become a deeper political conundrum for the leadership.

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