In the course of the 10-day journalism seminar at Fudan University in Shanghai mentioned below, we devoted a couple of classes to ethics. That is when the term “cultural clash” came home to me.
The 24 students were mostly graduate students and young Chinese professionals interested in pursuing a career in financial journalism in either print or broadcasting. All of them knew English to a greater or lesser extent.
Al Kamen, the columnist for The Washington Post, distributed copies of the Post’s “standards and ethics” guidelines that read in part: “We pay our own way…We accept no gifts from news sources.”
At this point, the Chinese students began to squirm.
Things are different in China, they finally explained. It is standard practice for Chinese reporters who attend a news conference called, say, by a corporation to announce a new product, to accept a “red envelope” stuffed with cash. The payments range from 200 to 800 Yuan ($25 to $100) depending on the company and whether it is an individual reporter or two-person television crew.
“Isn’t that a conflict?” I asked. Long silence. Then one young woman spoke up: “Of course it is, but everyone does it. Reporters aren’t paid much, so this is the way they supplement their income.”
Now other students came to the defense of the red envelopes. “It’s money I deserve,” one young man said defiantly, explaining that his paper would rarely pay for carfare to the news conference.
Reporters typically make around $7,500 dollars a year, he said, not enough to live on. The red envelopes can increase that by half. Besides, “gifts” are a standard way of getting things done in China. “I can’t imagine getting something from an official without a gift of some sort,” he said.
“It is good will from the company,” said another young man.
“If you take the money, do you feel obligated to write a positive story?” I asked.
“Sometimes, yes,” he said. “But every company does it, so it doesn’t matter, really.”
“It is cheaper than an ad,” another student said, with a touch of worldly cynicism in his voice. “The company needs the media and the media needs the company.”
The explanations went on and on. By now several of the students were smiling.
Finally the first young woman spoke up. “Obviously it would be better if no one took the red envelopes,” she said firmly. “But this is China and that is the way things are done.”