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.
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:
Through Western eyes, The Economist points out, China is often seen as an “Otherland that is as much an idea as a place on the map.” This orientation seeps into tech journalism. Recent reporting on TikTok has focused largely on the platform’s risks to data privacy; while this is indeed a concern, most coverage neglects to provide the larger context that data privacy is an ongoing problem for all major technology platforms…..
One problem I see is that many journalists reporting on Chinese technology have limited experience reporting within and about China. They might not fully understand the economic and media aims of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese language, or the underlying logic of global capitalism. China has a population of 1.3 billion people — more than the European Union and North America combined — but little of the tech coverage in the West recognizes the country’s complexity. Technology writers will argue at length the fine points distinguishing San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture but say nothing about the Pearl River Delta, a metropolitan complex whose population surpasses that of California and whose exports shape the global economy of electronic goods.
Some of the highlights:
- Technology stories are now as much about policy, power and diplomacy as they are about the tech itself.
- Cold War language is not super useful to describe the US-China tensions at the moment.
- Imprecise language about Chinese state politics obscures how decisions and policies might actually influence tech.
- It’s vital that tech reporters talk about the proximate, policy and systemic contexts behind tech.
- 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.