By COLIN GAMM —
CLAREMONT, Calif. – Government surveillance, death threats, cultural disconnects and a constant risk of bias are all inherent parts of reporting from China, New York Times journalist David Barboza said on Tuesday.
Barboza, the Shanghai bureau chief for the Times, recalled his transition to being monitored nearly constantly in a classroom talk at Claremont McKenna College. “The day I arrived in China, one of my colleagues told me, ‘You’ll be followed,’” he said. “There is a person in security … and they will be assigned to follow you while you’re in China. And they do. And I’ve met them.”
His home and office, he said, were probably bugged; men would sometimes barge in on his interviews and declare them “cancelled”; his car was routinely followed. Barboza never felt this surveillance was dangerous, but it did complicate his work. He would attempt to lose those tailing his car and speak carefully in his home, particularly when writing about controversial topics.
Barboza did perceive some of the threats he received as dangerous, however. These threats were sent by some of the influential families he wrote about, their business partners and the government. He considered not writing some of his most politically controversial stories out of concern for the safety of his wife, who is a Chinese citizen, but she ultimately convinced him to publish them.
Barboza noted that threats were not exclusive to China, however, and considered them a part of the job. “It’s just something you have to accept if you are going to do … investigative reporting,” he said.
Cultural barriers also complicated Barboza’s work. He felt that his early interviews were limited not only by the language, but also by an inadequate grasp of Chinese social patterns. “Chinese don’t always answer things directly,” he said. “They’re intentionally doing it that way. You have to adjust to a different culture, a different way of asking questions.”
Barboza also says that he has the perspective of an outsider, and that he writes like one. He feels that he can only hope to recognize and minimize this problem, and he welcomes feedback from Chinese readers.
Barboza acknowledges that it is difficult to prevent factors such as surveillance, cultural differences, and especially threats from creating a personal bias. “I do think many journalists let these threats affect them, and affect their reporting,” he said. “And it makes it easier for them to write something nasty about someone that they don’t like.”
Barboza, who says that attention to objectivity should be at the “top of the list” for all journalists, also worried that some in China develop a skewed sense of purpose. In their drive to effect change and practice “impact journalism,” they may fall victim to self-importance and activism, two qualities that Barboza says should have no place in journalism.
“You should be judicious, conservative, and realize that you’re just doing your job,” he said. “You’re not trying to make yourself a hero.”
(Written by Colin Gamm, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Oct. 2, 2015)