Beyond fake news: An in-depth look at the FCC Journalism Conference
The second annual FCC Journalism Conference took place at the Club on April 29. George W. Russell offers a roundup of the presentations from guests, major issues covered in the discussion panels, instructive takeaways from workshops and useful feedback from attendees.
The second annual FCC Journalism Conference might have been titled “Journalism in the Era of Fake News and Tweeting Presidents” but the all-day programme covered a much wider range of topics that affect the profession in Hong Kong and beyond.
The April 29 event was packed full of experienced and informative international and local speakers, lively panel discussions and useful workshops. The aim of the conference is to provide working journalists at every stage of their career with up-to-date, usable information they can implement in this era of transformation.
Delivering the opening address, then FCC President Eric Wishart reminded the audience that the inaugural conference in 2016 had digital disruption as its theme. “Looking back, it seemed a gentler, kinder time when all we had to worry about was coping with technological upheavals.”
Today, he noted, the media is fighting an even tougher battle against politicians who brand their negative coverage as “fake news”. Wishart lamented an environment in which “some of the finest and most respected institutions in the world have been labelled enemies of the people by the president of the United States.” This was especially difficult, he added, when “journalists have never been more at risk, physically and otherwise, in carrying out their mission around the world.”
Wishart went on to say that there were lessons for Hong Kong, given that the FCC is a “staunch defender of press freedom and freedom of speech, which has never been more important as Hong Kong reaches the 20th anniversary of the handover amid mounting concerns over the future of media freedom in the city.”
The view from Washington
To open the day’s proceedings, Wishart interviewed special guest Evan Osnos of The New
Yorker via Skype video link from his home in Washington, DC, grilling him about the toxic media environment in the United States since the accession of Donald Trump to the nation’s presidency.
Osnos, who covered China for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker between 2006 and 2014 drew parallels between Beijing’s control of information and Trump’s desire to taint existing media as purveyors of lies.
“From my training in China, if you want a fact you don’t call the relevant [government] department,” he said, adding that the US experience is becoming similar.
Journalists who face taunts of “fake news” should just continue what they were doing. Again he compared the US with China, where, he says, “People have a deep faith in ascertainable facts. There is no such thing as alternative facts. Countries must be held accountable to their constitutions whether the US or China.
It wasn’t all bad news, though. Osnos believed the leaky administration of President Donald Trump was encouraging a revival of old school reporting. He described the joy of heading out into the chilly mornings at 5am because there was yet another hot political story coming out of the Trump White House. Journalists like him in the US capital feel an “extraordinary amount of purpose” these days, he said.
Given the amount of hacking of computer systems – by state and non-state actors – reporters have an even greater obligation to protect their sources of information. So the new political journalism in the US is built on traditional technology.
“It’s old style shoe leather reporting [done in an] unspectacular, unglamorous way,” he said. “It’s very face to face. “There’re notebooks and pens and a lot [of information] is not making its way into the computer.”
The fake news challenge
The main discussion of the morning, a panel entitled “News Judgment and the Challenges of Fake News,” attempted to define the term fake news and address its challenges, especially in the United States where the Trump administration has spent so much time attacking the media.
Yumiko Ono of The Wall Street Journal noted the emergence of Twitter and other digital platforms as an important vector of news, real and fake. “People have an emotional connection to social media,” she said.
Ono added that news organisations using social media must figure out what readers want versus what the newsrooms think is important. “And there are differences between social media platforms,” she pointed out, causing the Journal to do “a lot of soul-searching” about the issues.
Gerry Mullany of The New York Times observed that not only has The New York Times been portrayed by the political fringe as biased and partisan, it has unwittingly been a victim of the Trump administration’s own misinformation campaign.
“We are the biggest distributors of fake news, according to Donald Trump,” he said, citing the Times’ own reports of a US aircraft carrier sailing towards North Korea. “We said the Carl Vinson was heading to the Korean peninsula. It was not true but [the story] was out there for two weeks.”
Bloomberg’s Jodi Fern Schneider noted that fake news was not a new phenomenon, recalling US vice-president Spiro Agnew’s declamation of the “nattering nabobs of negativity” back in 1969. Barack Obama, she added, often bypassed media, and both Bill and Hillary Clinton were wary of the press.
The panellists observed that the best counter-attack to accusations of fake news is publishing accurate reports. “We have a team of people overseeing facts,” said Simon Gardner of Reuters.
The audience appeared to enjoy the panel’s observations. “I thought it was a great insight into the fake news phenomenon,” said Tony Sabine, a producer and presenter at TVB in Hong Kong. “I’m interested in how different media see the issue and get to grips with it.”
Nuts and bolts advice
The conference also addressed many practical issues for current and aspiring journalists, such as a writing workshop hosted by former Club president Neil Western, Asia business editor at The Wall
Street Journal, and Carlos Tejada, Asia business editor at The New York Times.
Entitled “Writing Well at Any Length”, the workshop attempted to apply broad strategies to almost all forms of news writing. Tejada urged journalists to “write with the audience in mind”.
He distilled the basic structure of a story to “a declarative sentence, make points to support it, and explain why it is important,” adding: “The best stories are about conflict,” he added, or where “the stated intent or purpose goes horribly awry.”
Attendees said they found the workshop useful. Vivian Lin, a recent University of Melbourne graduate and Agence France-Presse intern in Hong Kong, said Neil and Carlos offered some good tips about writing leads and structuring stories. “Especially what to leave out,” she said. “Not everyone needs to see your homework.”
At the same time Bert’s hosted another well-attended workshop, “Graphics and Data: Facts in Numbers, featuring John Saeki of Agence France-Presse and Richard Frost of Bloomberg. “We are looking into how to better present data,” said TVB’s Sabine.
Infographics should not be seen as standalone design devices, Frost noted, but an integral part of the newsgathering process. “By using data in aggregate, we can see a trend that’s going to break, whether election results, property prices, or currencies.”
Saeki said presentation of graphics was as important as the data points.
“You have to hone in on what matters. If you’re looking at the ‘mother of all bombs’ strike in Afghanistan, landscape is important, as is proximity to Pakistan. If it’s about the UK nobody needs to know where its borders are.”
Meanwhile freelance members Vaudine England and Kate Whitehead joined Cedar Communications editorial director Mark Jones and Nikkei Asian Weekly’s Zach Coleman to discuss freelancing. “As a freelancer you should have a website and pay attention to your LinkedIn account,” said Whitehead, who added that she often uses the social network to find potential story leads.
England advised freelancers to “go to places where there aren’t staff correspondents [such as] Laos [and] Vietnam.
Thomas di Fonzo of The Wall Street Journal and Irene Jay Liu of Google examined developments in new media, while Alan Wong of The New York Times and Anne Kruger of the University of Hong Kong looked at the role of social media.
Hong Kong stories
The Hong Kong component of the conference was eagerly awaited. As an international financial centre, attendees said, Hong Kong ought to have a cosmopolitan, sophisticated media.
“We aim to report about Hong Kong in English and have an international readership of stories that are truly local,” said Elson Tong, a reporter with the Hong Kong Free Press.
Tong joined a standing-room-only audience to hear South China Morning Post Holdings Chief Executive Officer Gary Liu talk about positioning the Hong Kong daily for the future.
News publishing will see articles primarily shared through messaging applications, Liu forecast. Previously CEO of aggregate news site Digg, Liu outlined the struggles facing news organisations as advertising and print revenues decline and social media sites like Facebook become primary sources of news for so many.
“People are now going to fewer sources. Right now Facebook is a leader in that,” he said, adding that news organisations needed to think about content delivery differently: “Publishers have to think about two different types of platform: discovery and consumption.”
Western moderated a panel of correspondents from Associated Press, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Reuters and the Journal to look at how the Hong Kong story is reported around the world.
Benjamin Haas of The Guardian said Hong Kong had appeal globally because “there’s a lot of drama in Hong Kong that you don’t get in stories on Mainland China”.
Anne Marie Roantree, Hong Kong bureau chief at Reuters, said that during Occupy Central in 2014, her team used spot news to tell a wider story about the protests, bringing those stories together for a special report on Beijing tracking down activists.
Hong Kong remains the most important gateway to China with many correspondents based here spending a considerable amount of their time reporting from the Mainland.
Being a China correspondent is not just about reporting on the opaque Communist Party governance. Chinese society is not immune to change and rapidly evolving technology is having a major impact on every aspect of daily lives, from jobs and finance to leisure and social behaviour.
Before lunch, a panel of correspondents – Ben Richardson of Asia Times, Juro Osawa of The Information, Josh Horwitz of Quartz and Li Yuan of The Wall Street Journal – took a hard look at technology reporting in China.
Li warned against succumbing to the hype in China. “We are very sceptical,” she said of the tech media in the Mainland. However, she said Chinese companies had undoubted strengths. “The Chinese
are good at monetisation of live-streaming”. Osawa talked about the changing balance of funding. “China is a source of capital for Silicon Valley,” he noted.
The closing panel – “Covering China” – looked at the Mainland as a whole. Jamil Anderlini, Asia editor of the Financial Times, talked about the work he put in to gain the trust of government authorities and other contacts. “But there is no negotiating, you tell them you’re going to commit journalism to the best of your abilities.”
The correspondents discussed the issue that their work could put their contacts in danger of arrest or worse. “My stories have been used as evidence of state subversion,” Anderlini warned.
One aspect of the difficulties in working in the Mainland is the reluctance or refusal of government agencies to respond to questions or give out basic information requested by journalists. However, noted Keith Richburg, a former correspondent for The Washington Post, it was important to attempt to get the government’s side. Erika Kinetz, Shanghai correspondent for The Associated Press, said it was important to cultivate proactive officials. “There are officials in their 40s and 50s who are more open-minded,” she said. “There is dissent within departments.”
Even if there was no direct response, official views could be found on ministry and city government websites, Richburg said. However, Paul Mozur of The New York Times noted that official information should be checked. “There are many lies and things that are misconstrued in state media.”
Panellists took issue with one questioner’s suggestion that China’s system of a politically restrictive surveillance state combined with efficient stewardship of the economy could become the global template. “We can have this debate here [in Hong Kong] but we couldn’t in Shanghai or Beijing,” said Anderlini. “Freedom of speech and expression of ideas does not exist in China.”
With that, attendees gathered downstairs for refreshments and considered the day’s proceedings. “I like the idea of the profession’s self-reflection,” said Hannamina Tanninen, the Helsinki correspondent for the business publication, Kauppaleht.