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Reporting On Egypt, From China

November 20, 2018

Untitled designThere is an account in Chapter Three of Pál Nyíri’s Reporting for China: How Chinese Correspondents Work with the World in which a couple of Chinese correspondents reflect on their reporting of the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

They explained that their Western colleagues saw the uprisings, the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and the subsequent political chaos as the story of a failed transition to democracy, and this view framed the news stories they wrote.

The Chinese journalists, on the other hand, saw the revolution as the collapse of a great country after the ouster of the strong authority who held it together.

The point of these reflections was that both American and Chinese journalists can struggle to work professionally, and report honestly and accurately, while telling their audiences quite different “truths” rooted in the very different political, economic and historical contexts that make their news meaningful.

For the Chinese correspondents, their experience of the Egyptian uprisings and their aftermath, and the stories they tell about it, offer a cautionary tale relevant to audiences back home, and the wider world: there are worse things that can happen to a country than not having democracy.

I find this story compelling because it offers a more nuanced approach to understanding how different regimes of truth generate different kinds of news than simplistic accounts that reduce ideologies to elementary categories like “free,” “not free,” and “partially free.” (I previously reviewed a paper by Ying Roselyn Du that does just this).

The essential argument of Reporting for China is that Chinese correspondents work with and within global mediascapes in an effort to produce a “Chinese voice” that encompasses both the need to find and frame news that will be of interest to audiences back in China, but also to establish a Chinese news perspective that is different than the perspective of the Western media that currently dominates international news coverage.

This “Chinese voice” means different things to different journalists, of course. Finding a Chinese voice for the Egyptian revolution requires reflection, including correspondents who were shaken from youthful commitments to liberalism by the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic chaos that followed, and see this process being replicated in the fall of a strong, coherent authoritarian Egypt into a collapsed state.

As such, their news about Egypt becomes tinted with the color of a cautionary tale.

A crucial theme of the book will resonate with those of us who work in, or have friends working in Egyptian media: how to take journalists’ agency seriously in a state in which journalists and news bloggers are imprisoned, and a vast state political machine seeks to structure access to information.

The Chinese journalists with whom Nyíri spoke bristle at their reduction to any of the familiar stereotypes: willing party ideologues, cynical party hacks or courageous warriors for truth. One senior correspondent even warns Nyíri that he won’t understand Chinese journalists until he abandons these outmoded Western categories and takes them on their own terms. Nyíri rises to this challenge by exploring Chinese conceptualizations of journalism that promotes national cohesion, supports national self-interest and offers a “Chinese voice” on global affairs.

And as in Egypt, what journalists see as “national interest” is not always what the state sees as national interest; there is a continuum or field extending from critical, liberal voices to highly statist voices, with many variations and inflections.

References:

Du, Ying Roselyn. 2017. Tinted revolutions in prismatic news: Ideological influences in Greater China’s reporting on the role of social media in the Arab Uprisings. Journalism 19 (9-10): 1471-1489.

Nyíri, Pál. 2017. Reporting for China: How Chinese Correspondents Work with the World. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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