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Ethics and the little red envelope
By Zhu Qi (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-03-24 08:42

I was recently talking to a professor who was organizing an event for the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). Knowing I used to work in the media sector, Dr Linda G. Sprague asked me an embarrassing question: "Why must we give journalists little envelopes containing 300 yuan?"

I had to say it was the transportation payment. "Isn't it too much?" asked the American. Yes, I admitted, the money was enough for a taxi journey between Shanghai's two airports. But, this was the usual practice.

The conversation took me back to my first solo reporting assignment. I was disturbed at receiving a little envelope but both the event sponsor and my boss told me it was normal procedure. Since the event was nothing but a promotion for a new product, I was tortured about what to write. Finally, as the money was biting me through my pocket, I wrote a short report, going against my judgement as to its newsworthiness. The self-torture gradually phased out as I undertook further reporting of business events.

Most journalists in China have probably had similar experiences. They are generally paid by business event sponsors to show up and report. Recently, some government organizations have joined these business circles by adopting a standard payment of 200 yuan. The direct consequence is that journalists are not able to maintain an independent view with that little envelope in their pockets. Next time when you read a report that seems to carry no real news, such as my first individual assignment, you can figure out the existence of such a payment.

To make things worse, the critical role of a journalist has been replaced by a milder tone. In a word, journalists are paid, albeit a small amount of money, to write news stories as the mouthpiece of their interviewees rather than of the facts. Furthermore, the indulged journalists have become less sensitive to real news stories.

How far can this go? A recent incident may offer an answer. Four reporters from the Xinhua News Agency, China's national official news wire service, were punished severely for accepting a considerable amount of money for covering up the number of victims in a major mine accident in North China's Shanxi Province. Some were fired and some were expelled from membership in the Communist Party of China. The word "bribery" is used uncontroversially in this case. But is the small amount of the so-called "transportation payment" really so minor that it does not qualify as a bribe?

Like myself, a lot of journalists initially questioned the practice but at the individual level there is little they can do to solve the dilemma. This disempowerment comes from severe constraints upon particular moral agents. One individual cannot change the situation while everyone else is taking the practice for granted. If one refuses to take the small envelope, companies may end up just offering more, assuming that journalists are not satisfied.

Only at higher levels can the morally imprisoned journalists be helped. Individual media companies should establish strict policies explicitly laying out their moral standards, which should be reinforced by ethical training. On the other hand, since even individual companies may constrained, the National Journalists Association should play a bigger role. The Chinese Journalistic Ethics Code was established in 1991 and has been revised three times. But the code lacks detail, which makes it hard to implement. The code of ethics of the International Federation of Journalists stipulates: "Journalists should regard acceptance of a bribe in any form ... as a grave professional offence; respect for truth and for the right of the public to the truth is the first duty of the journalist." The Chinese code should add more details.

Last but not the least, the government should also make an effort to promote professional codes of ethics and discourage this practice.

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