Angel by Day, Devil by Night: A Media Story - Part 2
In Angel by Day, Devil by Night: A Media Story - Part 1, there was a link to a Southern Weekend article about a female elementary school teacher who had to also work as a prostitute in order to meet family financial obligations. That first part also contained criticisms from readers who did not find the journalistic investigation convincing and complete.
Ordinarily, that would be the end of it. For example, in the United States, sloppy journalism might end with a discussion such as this one: Judy, Judy, Judy.
But this is China, where many of the prominent journalists keep their own personal blogs. In fact, a personal blog may be essential for one's reputation. So the following is the translation of the Southern Weekend reporter Fu Jianfeng (傅剑锋)'s description of what he actually went through in order to come up with the report. Now isn't this much better?
[Fu Jianfeng's blog at Sina.com] Concerning the Experience in Interviewing the Rural Village Female School Teacher Selling Her Body To Allow Her Younger Brothers to Attend School. March 1, 2006.
The lead about rural teacher Xu Ping (a pseudonym) selling her body to allow her younger brothers to attend school and the associated problem of unpaid back wages came to Southern Weekend in November last year. This female school teacher was owed three months' wages and also getting money routinely deducted from her pay, and she came to us about her life experiences because she could not endure it anymore. The front page editor Yang Ruichun wanted to send reporters Nan Xianghong and Li Haipeng to investigate, but they were involved in other matters and could not go. So the lead was given to me.
During the process, the intern Ma Xiaoliu kept good communication with this female teacher via electronic mail and telephone, and this set up a good psychological foundation for the interview with the female teacher. After discussing with editor Yang Ruichun, we thought that it was unlikely that this report would not be published. First of all, this affair will have a sharp impact. Second, many of the experiences about selling her body cannot be verified. But after weighing the pros and cons, I told Yang Ruichun that I was still willing to do it. It would be best if this can be published if the facts can be verified during the investigation; otherwise, it would still be a responsible act towards history by recording an individual history in rural China. Furthermore, this is almost Chinese New Year and it would be unbearable to owe wages to such a teacher. Even if we were very unsuccessful, we should still be able to get her deserved wages back.
On January 16, 2006, after a five to six hour bumpy long-distance bus ride, we arrived at a small city. We saw Xu Ping at the local bus station. This is a small and skinny girl. Although we knew that she was 24 years old, her face looked older (around 27 or 28 years) even though her bright eyes and two pony tails on her head made us feel that she was younger. I guess this had to do with her life experience, especially with the long-term psychological pressures.
She took us to the home of her boyfriend. Her boyfriend is an ordinary blue-collar worker, and he has a home of almost 100 square meters paid for by a loan which requires monthly payments. The boyfriend and Xu Ping got acquainted last year. He is very good to her, he gives him some spending money every month and she saves all her wages to pay for her younger brothers' tuition. When this 20-something-year-old man saw us coming, he gave us a warm smile. He looks very honest and earthy.
Like Xu Ping, he is a dedicated Buddhist. He told us that he knew about the experience of Xu Ping in selling her body to keep her younger brothers in school. He said that he does not mind and he understands and forgives her past. Then he went out to work the night shift. (There are certain details that involve personal privacy and therefore not presented in the report)
That day, I and intern Ma Xiaoliu had a deep discussion with Xu Ping (all recorded). She showed us certain important evidence: her diary, her teacher's license, her wage card, her medical records and some letters and notes from her students (there were more kept at her school dormitory). I took photographs of everything. Also, I found out the telephone numbers of several friends who knew about her life of prostitution, including a local public servant (he requested us not to disclose his particulars), Zhongshan University student Li Jun and another university graduate student (he requested us not to disclose his particulars). I confirmed with them and established the veracity of her experience in a preliminary fashion.
During the entire narration, Xu Ping maintained a high degree of self-control. She said that ever since she converted to Buddhism, she felt much less pain than before She spoke calmly, as if she was talking about someone else's story.
She was very simple and pure and she had a high degree of trust in us. She did not conceal certain extremely personal details. At the time, I thought that it would have been better if a female reporter were here instead, because she could more directly verify the physical damage during the prostitute experience. This was not possible for a male reporter to ask due to journalistic ethics.
The intern Ma Xiaoliu had established a good friendship with her in the period leading up to now She told Ma Xiaoliu that she was quite unhappy inside to be an elder sister who must help to pay the tuition for her three younger brothers. In the next life, she wants to be someone's else younger sister. She hoped that Ma Xiaoliu could touch her head like an elder brother. She said: "When class is over, I touch the heads of the children and they are usually happy because they feel that the teacher loves them." So Ma Xiaoliu touched her head just like an elder brother, and Xu Ping smiled happily. I was a little teary as I stood on the side. A still-very-young girl does not get to enjoy the happiness and love that she deserves at this age. Instead she has to bear the family burden. What led to this kind of fate?
On the next day, we took two hours by car to reach the rural school where Xu Ping was. The school was out for the Chinese New Year vacation. We sat in the teacher's dormitory and we read the many drawings and notes that the students gave her. Last September, the students learned that she wanted to become a Buddhist nun because life was too harsh and so they wrote many notes and letters to comfort her, and they wanted her to stay. At the corner of the dormitory, there were some rice, eggs and potatoes. These were presents from the students in November. At the time, another teacher told the students, "Teacher Xu Ping has been owed three months in wages but she still comes to teach class. So you should listen to her." The more understanding students then brought in the stuff to help out. We also interviewed another teacher at the school. This teacher also knew about Xu Ping selling her body to pay for the tuition. He thought that it is good to have such a teacher who loves the students, but he did not want to discuss Xu Ping's past. He and other teachers at the school told the reporter about the withholding and deduction of teacher pay and the tight school budgetary situation. They also supplied the corresponding evidence.
That afternoon, we hitched a ride to Xu Ping's home. As soon as we reached the entrance, a whole crowd of local town government officials came out to greet us.
Actually, Xu Ping had concealed certain things from us before she asked us to come. Since she wanted to get paid, she had written a letter of complaint to People Net a couple of days before we arrived. The letter was published on People Net and the People Net reporter called the local government officials about this matter. Therefore, the local officials not only knew about Xu Ping selling her body to pay for tuition, but they made preparations in anticipation of reporters coming to investigate. At first, they thought that we were from People Net. Furthermore, before Xu Ping contacted us, she had also written to Phoenix TV's Cold and Warm Worlds program editor Wang Juwei who had wanted to send Chen Xiaonan to interview her. Later, Xu Ping considered that this would bring immense pressure on her family and reneged. Finally, the friend who wanted to help her -- Zhongshan University student Li Jun suggested that she contact our newspaper. (Note: after the report went out, Xu Ping asked our reporter to decline most media interviews on her behalf. She said that she only wanted to lead a tranquil life, but she was interviewed on Phoenix TV without showing her face).
Thereafter, the officials watched us every second and so it was impossible to interview the family in the normal way. So, in the next two days, we ceased all interviews with the family members and we interviewed the local officials instead . Mainly, we focused on the deduction and withholding of teacher wages, free education provide by the town, the teacher pay scale, the financial budgets for base-level governments, and peasant incomes and educational conditions. These tangential investigations helped to construct the various factors and circumstances that affected the fate of the family of Xu Ping.
Over more than two days, the situation about the owed wages was clarified The local government stated that they would place the owed amounts into the accounts of the more than forty teachers as quickly as possible. So I said goodbye to them, and they thought that we left. Actually, we returned to Xu Ping's home and we interviewed her parents and younger brothers in depth. But one thing should be made clear -- although Xu Ping's oldest younger brother and her mother knew about her body-selling activities to pay for the tuition, she hoped that we would not bring this up because her dad may not be able to deal with it. Therefore, we only tried to hint peripherally and we could not ask for direct verification as a matter of personal morality. Afterwards, we went out and spoke to some villagers about simple daily life issues. (After our report came out, Xu Ping's second youngest brother in middle school could not believe that his sister made such a sacrifice. Xu Ping's mother held the newspaper and told him: "What the newspaper said is true. You better study well in order to repay your sister.").
By the time that we said goodbye to the family, the local government officials had already entered the owed amount into the account. I, editor Yang Ruichun and intern Ma Xiaoliu gave 600 RMB to Xu Ping's family and told her to make sure that her mother's ailment gets treated. Xu Ping started crying. At the home entrance where the naked bricks are showing on the ground, her shoulders were shaking rhythmically.
Even though what Xu Ping told was true, some of the details involve private information about the interviewees, or they insisted on not publishing their real names, or it involves certain details that cannot be directly verified for ethical reasons. Therefore, it was necessary to conceal certain important information in a written report. It is easy for the readers to become suspicious, and even for some readers to doubt the trustworthiness of the entire report. In addition, even if Xu Ping agreed to be reported on, I would be uneasy if the report caused Xu Ping's family harm afterwards. So I told editor Yang Ruichun that it was enough that we helped her to get her back wages and we write an internal report. Yang Ruichun also thought that if this is really going to harm her family, then we would rather not publish it.
For almost a month afterwards, I could not decide whether to write the report or not. During that period, I and editor Yang Ruichun talked most of all about all the principles of journalistic ethics involved in this story. We reached a consensus that even though the experiences of the family of this female teacher is a case study that reflects the diverse extreme conditions in rural villages, we would accept the consequences for her family only if they are within what we can control and help. If the consequences are beyond our ability to control and help, we would rather not publish it.
During the first part of February, I was still worrying about these issues of journalistic ethics and I just could not start writing. During those days, I remained in contact with this female school teacher, and I paid careful attention to the changes to her family and village. She knew why I was not writing this report. So she wrote me a letter. The letter said basically that in order for society to understand a family like hers and a rural teacher like her, we should write the story. She said that she was not afraid. If she loses this teaching job, she can still continue to be a teacher even if she has to move to the western part of the country. With these words from her, I found the will to write.
This report was finally approved for publication. I felt that this was a victory no matter what. This is an expression of Southern Weekend's tradition and goals.
But one regrettable thing was that my accompanying commentary was not published for various objective reasons. That commentary examined the changes in fate of this family to make observations about the expenditure of moral resources in rural villages, the tense relationship between high university tuition fees and rural poverty and the connection between the lack of means to create wealth and the vulnerability against unanticipated adversities among rural residents. This was a piece of commentary that expressed the value directions and observation angles of the main report. Editor Yang Ruichun was quite pleased with it. Later on, this essay was published in the Southern Metropolis Daily's journalist notebook column.
Prior to writing that commentary, I wanted to consult the Three Peasants Problem expert Wen Tiajun about his views. But he said that he did not know enough about this case, so he did not offer his views. But he told me that his heart was bleeding as he read my report. I obviously know that a reader like Mr. Wen would understand what I really want to express and communicate in the main report. He would be able to consider better and more constructive recommendations from the information. But an ordinary reader might misread this story due to the conflicting and contradictory information in the absence of an appropriate commentary.
Therefore, I sent an SMS to a good friend who cared about this report: "Without the commentary, I predict the report will generate a small storm. A small storm as a result of misreading, or even a storm that would tarnish the reputation of Southern Weekend." He said that I worried too much, but I said that I had the instinctive feeling.
After the report was published, there was the social attention and storm just as I predicted.
As for those well-intended comparisons (such as with other Southern Weekend sections), I will just laugh about it because the value message that Southern Weekend wishes to communicate in such a report is completely different.
As for the various malevolent attacks, I don't feel that it is necessary to respond.
I only want to work under the sun, I let my sweat flow down my eyebrows, I let my eyes see the sunlight and the shadow, I let my heart stay close to the earth ...
But I am glad to discuss any normal professional criticisms.
I think that the most vexing thing about this report was that there were too many privacy issues with the principals and too many sensitive local interests. Therefore I was unable to use the actual names in many instances. Under the current state of political and journalistic language, how can I perfectly satisfy both journalistic demands and protection of privacy? How can I satisfactorily follow journalistic ethics while satisfying the reader's quest for the truth? How do I achieve the balance between journalistic ideals and protection of political security? I have not thought through these problems, and I ask you to think about them too.
Also, it was pointed out by knowledgeable colleagues that this report was deficient in describing the character conflicts within the female teacher. The psychological conflict is expressed mainly in "Angel (rural teacher) on weekdays, devil (body-seller) on weekend.) I did not write that out in detail. I think that from the viewpoint of recording the mental suffering of the victims in this era, such investigations are essential. Many macroscopic narratives become pale and empty in the face of such personal histories. But I did not record it well.
I did not feel that I spent enough time in the investigation. During the more than five days of work, more than two days were wasted on dealing with the officials. Too little time was spent on investigating how the female teacher was selling her body. If I had more time, I should be able to come up with richer material, and I could find a more convincing method of expression. But it must be said that this report involves many issues about journalistic ethics (and there is also the awkward situation about political language in China that everybody knows about), so I did not even know if I wanted to do this. If only I could make some supplementary investigations prior to publication, I could have made the report more robust and forceful.