To report on tech, journalists must also learn to report on China

In my new article for Columbia Journalism Review, I look at some of the challenges and opportunities.

an xiao mina
Oct 26, 2020 · 3 min read
A photo I took in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei District.

I have a new article out in Columbia Journalism Review that explores some unfortunate patterns I’ve seen in technology coverage lately as many people writing about tech — already a difficult beat — turn their eye toward China, perhaps for the first time:

Some of the highlights:

  1. Technology stories are now as much about policy, power and diplomacy as they are about the tech itself.
  2. Cold War language is not super useful to describe the US-China tensions at the moment.
  3. Imprecise language about Chinese state politics obscures how decisions and policies might actually influence tech.
  4. It’s vital that tech reporters talk about the proximate, policy and systemic contexts behind tech.
  5. These patterns have a long history in Yellow Peril narratives.

We shortened the piece to cover just the core topics at hand, but some other issues I ultimately didn’t include in the piece are worth remembering:

  • Cultural, geopolitical, and professional diversity ultimately serve the public interest with the most enriching information. Diverse and interdisciplinary newsrooms are best equipped to navigate the sheer complexity of these issues while keeping an eye out for tired tropes, stereotypes, cultural blind spots, and potentially inflammatory rhetoric. Newsrooms on the technology beat need to hire people with cultural understanding, language skills, and working knowledge in the topics they cover. Stakeholders should have an opportunity to weigh in and contribute meaningful writing and editorial work. This can help ensure that the most effective and representative information can be shared with the public, while minimizing the risk for potential inadvertent harms and blind spots.
  • Avoid cultural tropes. It’s hard to believe I have to say this, but I have to say this. When writing about China, avoid cultural tropes like dragons, tea, and martial arts. These cultural forms have important historic and cultural influences, but they rarely have a place in the midst of serious policy discussion. Imagine a similar conversation about Silicon Valley platform responsibilities that seeks to describe it through the lens of eagles, Coca Cola, and baseball. (Bay Area hipsters would be up in arms, saying they drink Sightglass Coffee and kombucha, thank you very much.)
  • There is a practical reason for this too: journalist safety. In the midst of a pandemic, firewall restrictions and ongoing censorship and surveillance of Chinese platforms make it significantly more difficult to report on China from afar. Those with limited ties to the country often have the safest opportunity to speak out without fear of repercussions on themselves and their families. There is no question that repression of journalists in mainland China outranks most countries, but as the US and other Western countries also drop in press freedom indices and global attacks on journalists rise, especially against women and people of color, we need interesectional journalistic solidarity more than ever.

Read more at Columbia Journalism Review.

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an xiao mina

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author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan. opinions my own.

Digital Diplomacy

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