By JULIUS KELLINGHUSEN —
Getting death threats is something investigative reporters have to accept, whether in China or elsewhere, veteran New York Times China correspondent David Barboza on Tuesday told a classroom of journalism students at Claremont McKenna College.
His visit to the college on Tuesday offered students the opportunity to explore the life of an investigative journalist. Many were eager to hear about the sides of the job that are most adventurous, even dangerous. Barboza seemed glad to indulge them, but made a point to weave lessons and advice into every story.
“I do think many journalists let these threats affect their reporting,” he said, emphasizing the importance of internalizing journalistic ethics, responsibility, and professionalism as a way to prevent bias from invading a story.
The death threats came as a result of one of Barboza’s most renowned works which earned him the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in international reporting, which the Pulitzer website describes as a “striking exposure of corruption at high levels of the Chinese government, including billions in secret wealth owned by relatives of the prime minister.”
But the Chinese government was on his heels long before then. Soon after his arrival in China, he found surveillance devices in his home and suspected there were more in his office. He says the tracking is not dangerous, as much as disruptive to his work.
Occasionally members of the central or local government would interrupt his interviews and, completely ignoring him, coerce the interviewees into ending the discussion and sending Barboza away.
He was also constantly watched. “There is a person in security who has a file folder with your name on it and knows who your wife is, knows everything about you,” he explained, “and they will be assigned to follow you while you’re in China.”
As his tale started to feel increasingly like a spy movie, he recounted times when he was in fact afraid for his and his wife’s safety and considered not finishing the corruption story. His wife, however, strongly supported his work and “loved the game of trying to escape from the Chinese government.”
Barboza’s last great story in China is much less controversial, but he is no less invested. This story will be about tomb raiders; migrant workers who travel around China, digging up ancient tombs and selling the relics on the black market.
He and his wife are moving back to New York next month and it seems like Barboza is ready for a quieter life. “As you get older, you definitely become more conservative,” he explains. “If something went wrong, would I be like, ‘Wow, I won a Pulitzer Prize but I only have one arm. They got to me.’”
(Written by Julius Kellinghusen, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Oct. 2, 2015)