Am I A Journalist?

If pressed into making a simple YES/NO choice, the answer is YES/NO because nothing is ever simple.

I have been away from home for more almost two weeks now, and my blog posts have been sporadic.  However, the controversies kept coming, and many of that was due to the recent publicity that EastSouthWestNorth has received from the traditional and new media.  I may not be doing anything more or different now, but I am coming under greater scrutiny.  I will recount some of these events here, and discuss what (if anything) it has to do with my being a journalist (or non-journalist).

Prior to departing, I had posted some long translations.  While I was away, Musing Under The Tenement Palm provided a detailed comparison of the ESWN translation of the Panyu government statement on Taishi village with the China Daily version.  The conclusion: "I think we can safely say that ESWN was in fact plagiarized. If a student handed this in, Iíd bust Ďem."  Next, Musing Under The Tenement Palm produced another line-by-line comparison in ESWN Vs. China Daily Round Two: This Time Itís Not Just About Grammar about an article on a hair salon girl and concluded: "The editors of this article, however, were not editors of style. They were censors, much like those who snipped sensitive sentences from the Washington Post and International Herald Tribune ..."

What was I going to do?  Nothing.  If I were a journalist and those were my original work, I might be indignant.  But all I did was translate something from Chinese into English without the permission of the original owners.  So who am I to complain then?  In the proper perspective, I went through the effort to translate those kinds of articles because they appealed to me in some way and I wanted to share it with the English-only reading world.  If China Daily is able to introduce these articles to an audience not reached by ESWN, even though it was with some minor editing and censorship, then that would be to my satisfaction -- if you believe what I said.

During this period, there were also two blog posts that were quickly deleted.  They were straight translations, but the original sources proved to be inaccurate with potentially harmful consequences.  So off they went!  I believe that the rapid feedback on those items reflects the fact that more people are reading and scrutinizing ESWN. 

But is what I do journalism?

I certainly did not start off to be a journalist.  I started ESWN from the viewpoint of a news reader.  I can read both Chinese and English, and I observed that the news is often divergent between the Chinese-language and the English-language coverage.  In many ways, the English-only reader is short-changed, and it is my goal to rectify that imbalance. 

There are two major things that I do here at ESWN.  One of them is straight translation to bring important news stories in Chinese to the English-only world.  Most of the time, these are straight translations with minimal comments from the blogger.  The translations appropriated by China Daily are examples.  Other examples are Li Ao's Speech At Beijing University, Li Ao's Speech At Tsinghua University, Li Ao's Speech At Fudan University and Li Ao's Press Conference in Hong Kong.  Instead of selected translations or summaries that often served ideological purposes, I offered the speeches translated in their entirety.

The other thing is the long-term detailed assemblage of facts around specific events or persons.  Certainly, the most important case is about Taishi Village (China).  Here is the famous statement from Rebecca MacKinnon at RConversation that directed web traffic to ESWN:

So when it comes to the Taishi information situation, we have the following picture: the Chinese media hasn't been allowed to report on the details of the fight over the Taishi village elections. Chinese internet bulletin boards discussing the issue have been forced to shut down. Chinese blogs are angry about how the Western media has let them down, and the Chinese foreign ministry is making statements about how foreign reporters have been going around flaunting the law (which I know from experience is impossible not to flaunt if you're actually going to succeed in covering any news and not turn yourself into a People's Daily clone). But the foreign mainstream media hasn't been following the story in any real detail either. The only people following it closely and fully outside of China have been HKInMedia, a Hong Kong Chinese-language independent media website, and when it comes to English coverage, no other source beats the Hong Kong-based media researcher-turned-blogger, Roland Soong of ESWN. As my colleague Ethan Zuckerman pointed out the other day:

Rolandís been doing exactly what skilled journalists could be doing with the Taishi story - collecting accounts online, via email and from media sources, translating from Chinese to English, and organizing them into coherent narratives, like this hugely useful timeline.

While Iím not generally a blog triumphalist - I believe there are stories that mainstream media can cover that bloggers cannot, and that bloggers usually follow, rather than lead the media - this is a case where bloggers and citizen journalists have been running circles around formal journalism.

Even with my decent (albeit slow) ability to read Chinese, I would have been at a total loss in making heads or tails of the Taishi story without Roland's tenacious work. I haven't come across any other good English-language source with such detailed and up-to-date information on Taishi - or on many other issues related to the internet and media in China. He is doing a tremendous service to the world's understanding of China - to the extent that the world will ever understand China. I know for a fact that a lot of Western journalists covering China have already come to depend on ESWN as a source of raw materials, free translations, and story ideas. Too bad most of them can't or don't link back to him and credit him the way  bloggers do.

Roland and ESWN is "exhibit A" for why blogs enhance the world's "information ecosystem," as I like to call it. I am not one who believes that mainstream professional journalism should be replaced by blogs. But news companies make choices of what to cover globally based on limited resources and personnel. They can't cover everything happening on the planet, and editors could give me a long list of reasons - many valid - for why they can't cover Taishi any more than they have. But thank goodness we now have a growing number of multi-lingual bloggers all around the world who won't let go of issues they believe have long-term importance and should not be allowed to die: bloggers who keep collecting information about places like Taishi long before and long after the mainstream media has come and gone with the story. They will influence history every bit as much as the best mainstream journalism does.

This would suggest that ESWN is a mutant form of journalism that still does not have universal codes of conduct and ethics.

But there may be another truer test of whether I am a journalist or not.  Suppose one day I go into China and I am arrested (assuming it is for reasons that may be construed to be related to 'journalistic' practices, such as the proverbial 'leaking of state secrets' or 'incitement to disrupt public order and social harmony').  Would the journalist organizations come to my assistance?  Any organization that does is recognizing me as a journalist, and vice versa.  I have not made any systematic inquiry about this hypothetical scenario (although that might make an interesting investigation for some real-life journalist).  Without naming names, I can speculate that some organizations will ignore me because I am not a dues-paying, card-carrying member.  I speculate that other organizations will ignore me because I do not work for any traditional news media.  I do know that there is at least one organization which will support me as a blogger if I am persecuted on the basis that I write 'editorial commentary.'  But let us hope that the day will never come.

In the end, this is a silly question.  If I wanted to become a traditional journalist, I would have become one.  Instead, I became an independent blogger by my own choice because the freedom and style appeal to me.  So why I do want to get hung up on a label?

Meanwhile, it is a pleasure to read comments such as these from Austin Arensberg:

There is some distinction someone out there used to describe bloggers. It is basically three distinctions. One beginner blog letís say is a blog that is basically just for friends and family. That is a lot of fun because you do whatever the hell you want and no one cares. If you decide to go on a heroin binge and not write for a month, your grandma might be concerned but other than that no one will hold you accountable.

Then there are the second tier bloggers. These people (Ok, admittedly I think I fall in this category) think (though they probably arenít) contributing to some sort of intellectual discourse on the internet. They have some vague experience in whatever they comment on and they banter in the occasional blogosphere rants.  Like the Taishi elections, or the more recent Guardian debacle.  For me my biggest kick was the Super Girls extravaganza (I must have been alone as my two hour post on Simonís World hit with a resounding thump).

And then of course are the real bloggers, need I mention them here? They spend like my friend Chris at Asiapundit about 4 hours a day minimum hauling through the jungle of RSS to find the golden nuggets and then just as quickly come out with some witty commentary that isnít cliche and a touch conflictory (new word I know).  There is a fourth category, letís call it ESWN, nuff said.