Western media and the Hong Kong protests: a lesson in balance

By Joanna Plucinska

In the fall of 2014, the Occupy Hong Kong movement captured the attention of the world and the Western media. It was the largest protest to ever grip the city—the local media, let alone foreign reporters, had never seen anything like it. Many journalists had to figure out how to report the story without bias as they tried to understand cultural nuances while also churning out daily stories. The cultural complexities and rifts in the city made this extremely difficult, especially for Western media.

The 2014 Hong Kong protests. (Underbar dk/Wikimedia Commons)

The 2014 Hong Kong protests. (Underbar dk/Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong’s deep societal divide, evident throughout the protests, originates from the push and pull between China’s rule over the former British colony and the democratic values that many residents cling to. In 1997, when the transfer from Britain to China took place, Hong Kongers were told that they would one day have universal suffrage—meaning that eventually they could directly elect all their political representatives. At the time of the handover, Hong Kongers could only elect 35 members of the 70-person legislative council and had no direct say in the election of their chief executive—a situation that holds today.

In August 2014 China and Hong Kong’s political leadership finally proposed democratic reforms that would allow Hong Kongers to elect their chief executive directly. But there was a catch: the people of Hong Kong could only pick from a set of three pre-selected candidates. The government proposal triggered widespread dissent. Protesters wanted universal suffrage without the Chinese government’s intervention.

Protesters soon began to occupy the Legislative Council buildings in the Admiralty neighborhood of Hong Kong and to demonstrate in the Causeway Bay area. Throngs of foreign, English-language media descended upon Hong Kong, desperate to find out more about the burgeoning revolution. Some of them had no knowledge of Hong Kong politics and had to quickly gather sources and stories. Many of the pro-democracy protesters were young, eloquent, well-versed in English and able to speak in sound bites.

For many reporters, these young people were the easiest sources of information. As a result, a simple narrative dominated much of the West’s early coverage of the events: the protests represented the democratic struggle of Hong Kongers. “Relatively speaking international media reports related to activists, and the conflict between protests and government,” said King-wa Fu, a media professor at Hong Kong University who focuses on Chinese and the Western media coverage of China. As freelance reporter Tom Grundy, who wrote for the BBC, Quartz and Global Post, put it, “most of the time you were surrounded by pro-democracy protesters and you were just reporting the facts as you saw them.”

But according to Western media conventions, reporters should dig below the most visible and accessible information. To produce more nuanced, multifaceted stories, journalists needed to speak not just with the protesters, but also to those who opposed them. This proved challenging, as one side of the protest was not open to conversation. Skeptical of Westerners and profoundly tied to the culture of mainland China, the “anti” protesters proved elusive and even hostile towards foreign reporters.

Rishi Iyengar landed in Hong Kong to start an internship at TIME magazine the day the protest movement began. For the next five months, he and a team of two other interns were responsible for the coverage of the movement. All were educated in either the U.K. or in the U.S., none of them spoke a word of Cantonese, the local language. None had lived in Hong Kong before.

According to Iyengar, their editors made it clear from the start that they were reporting for an American audience.They weren’t to get caught up in the more local details of the revolution—the court cases and the day-to-day squabbles. Instead, Iyengar said, the editors told them to consistently take a 10,000-foot view of the protests and ask themselves: what do our readers want to know?

The answer was democratic struggle and China’s disruption of it. After all, 78 percent of TIME.com’s readership was based in the U.S. “These guys are fighting for democracy,” Iyengar said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t about what the people of Hong Kong feel as much.”

As the protests went on, however, TIME’s reporting became more nuanced. The interns came to better understand the city’s political landscape, so they actively sought the voice of the other side—over the course of months, Iyengar explained, their editors started insisting that each piece needed at least a few sentences of counter-balance. One intern, Elizabeth Barber, was solely responsible for contacting the pro-Beijing government camp, the name given to the legislators who were against the protest movement. They often provided brief sound bites for more political stories. Iyengar also ventured out to find non-local Chinese people to see how their views might differ from those of Hong Kongers.

But when it came to speaking with Chinese people on the street, things proved difficult. “I talked to three, four, five people and they’d all be like, ‘no English sorry,’ before I’d actually get to someone,” Iyengar said. The interns eventually began to ask random Hong Kongers to translate speeches and conversations for them, but it was a time-consuming, inefficient process—one that didn’t weigh down their colleagues who had grown up in the city. Those journalists faced different challenges.

For Kris Cheng, a freelancer who writes for Western publications and was born and raised in Hong Kong, no linguistic barrier existed. Cheng speaks Cantonese fluently and understands local slang. For him, the main challenge was cultural. As a young Hong Konger who attended school with many of the protest leaders, it was difficult for him to understand those who opposed the protests. “Young people like me don’t have friends against the movement,” he explained. “[Even] if you really want to find someone who is against the movement, you can’t find any.”

Cheng made an effort to remove himself from his familiar circle to ensure he covered every part of the story. He would often go to Mong Kok, a suburb of Hong Kong where many of the anti-protest groups gathered.

But he did so at his own risk. When confronted by pro-democracy protesters or even by journalists, those opposed to the protests could become violent. Many journalists complained of veiled threats and physical confrontations with anti-protesters, with videos of scuffles between protesters and police spread over social media. “Sometimes they would talk to you and sometimes you would get hit in the eye. Some of them were very emotional, it depended on the mood of the day,” Cheng said.

Isabella Steger, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, also found that being affiliated with a Western newspaper sometimes hindered her reporting. “There was this conspiracy developing about the foreign media’s involvement in the protests that was being propagated by state media,” said Steger, who also grew up in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese. “They saw my face and they didn’t think that I could understand Chinese. I heard people [saying that] we only report one side of it anyway so what’s in it for them to speak to us.”

These experiences made her more aware of the pro-protestor values many Western journalists had espoused—and how those views could alienate not just the Journal’s readership, but also locals. Steger made sure to report the facts and only the facts, even on her social media accounts. “I don’t feel that anyone [at the Journal] was overly open, or naked about [their pro-democracy] beliefs in the journalism that they produced,” she said. “We would keep it straight and say ‘this is what’s happening’ without added evaluations of who’s at fault.”

Even the foreign reporters who arrived in Hong Kong solely to cover the protests learned to better recognize their own biases, while still trying to cover the story broadly for a global audience. Whether it was through developing local contacts, using translators or simply spending more time in the city, Cheng says Western media outlets eventually figured out how they fit into the city’s complex identity politics. “[Foreign journalists] tried to get why the whole thing is happening, they got better at understanding why there’s a protest culture and why Occupy is more than just a big protest,” Cheng said.

Their reporting still ended up differing dramatically from local media coverage: it was less thorough and, ultimately, still somewhat slanted, according to Fu. “The international media took a more critical stance towards the Hong Kong government and China [compared to local media,]” Fu said. But he thinks that Western media outlets are hardly to blame for this — after all, it was a conscious decision on their part. “They have their own interests and that reflects their editorial direction and their readers’ interests so of course you see differences,” Fu said. “I don’t think it’s unique to Hong Kong.”

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Editor’s Note—Joanna Plucinska on her choice of subject for her feature article: “Over the course of FASPE, we frequently spoke of the importance and ethics of balance in reporting—of fairly covering each side of the story. We also discussed how to handle difficulties in acquiring access to certain sources, especially when covering a sensitive, politically inflammatory subject. In my piece, I examined some of the difficulties that foreign reporters had getting their stories to strike this balance when covering the Hong Kong protests, especially since many of the locals who opposed the protests also opposed the Western media’s coverage of them.

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