New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal said she feels fortunate to have spoken for reporters gagged by the Chinese government.
“Some of our greatest stories come from when [Chinese] writers say, ‘I can’t write this, but you can,’” she said.
As part of her Tuesday Poynter Journalism Fellowship lecture, “Journalism in China: Scaling the Great Wall of Control,” Rosenthal spoke to about 20 people about her experience as a features reporter overseas. During the talk, Rosenthal highlighted what she described as the vast number of journalistic opportunities in China and the censorship of the Chinese government.
Even though Chinese journalists are well-trained, she said, there is a limit on what they can publish. Ultimately, printed articles reveal a sanitized version of the story, she said.
“There is a tension between people wanting to talk about problems and the government’s continuous desire to control information,” she said.
She said she felt little personal risk as a reporter, but she said her sources were usually much more vulnerable to the government’s control.
“I don’t want to be the one who lands them in jail,” she said.
In China, unlike the United States, all journalists must apply for accreditation from the foreign ministry. Rosenthal said even if a reporter gains access to the country, she must apply to the ministry for each individual she wishes to interview. Approval is difficult to obtain, she said.
“A story done in an afternoon here would take months of waiting there,” Rosenthal said.
She said the process often leads to unsatisfying results, but she said the system is improving because Chinese officials have become more accepting of Western reporters.
In the past, Rosenthal said, China only allowed one journalist from each international newspaper to report on the country, and that reporter usually focused on human-rights issues and politics. Rosenthal said the country began allowing more reporters into China in the late 1990s, allowing expanded coverage about lighter aspects of Chinese life.
“It was like being in a big buffet, picking the stories that you [wanted] to do,” Rosenthal said.
Recently, people in China have become much more open, Rosenthal said, especially in AIDS-afflicted villages in which an increasing number of people want journalists to use their names and pictures.
“There is a tremendous sense of openness and entitlement that is pulling the country forward and the government with it,” Rosenthal said. “[Chinese citizens] are not going to lie down and let their rights be trampled on.”
Rosenthal said the role of journalists in China is changing for the better.
“The country has really evolved,” Rosenthal said. “This place has really changed in wonderful ways. — The groundwork there has room for a great media.”
Xu Yao DIV ’04 EPH ’04, who was born and raised in China, said she was surprised by Rosenthal’s optimism about the progress of Chinese journalists.
“It was a little surprising because I have heard a lot [recently] about editors taking out whole sections of articles that they found inappropriate,” she said.
Other audience members said Rosenthal’s talk was enlightening.
“I think her anecdotes were interesting,” Sharon Lin ’99 said. “It gave a personal view of the journalism in China.”
Rosenthal, who received a bachelor’s degree in history and biology from Stanford University, a master’s degree in English literature from Cambridge University and a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, is the first Poynter fellow of the academic year. Established by Nelson Poynter GRD ’27, the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism brings journalists who have made significant contributions to their field.