Competition and Cooperation in Hong Kong News Media

Here are some of the results from the study "People's Appraisal of Local News Media" conducted by Hong  Kong University's Public Opinion Programme.  The survey was based upon a sample base of 1,029 adult persons who were interviewed between March 7 and April 6, 2006.  This telephone survey had a response rate of 59.5%

Credibility rating of the local news media in general (on a scale of 0-10) is 5.72.

Freedom of the press in Hong Kong:
- Satisfaction rating (collapsed from a 5-point scale): 62%
- Dissatisfaction rating: 11%

Perceived the local media to be:
- Responsible in their reporting (collapsed from a 5-point scale): 18%
- Irresponsible in their reporting: 42%

Perceived that the local media:
- Had given full play to the freedom of speech: 74%
- Had not given full play to the freedom of speech: 20%

Perceived that the local news media:
- Had misused/abused the freedom of press: 69%
- Had not misused/abused the freedom of press: 22%

Perceived that the local news media:
- Had practiced self-censorship: 39%
- Had not practiced self-censorship: 45%

Perceived that the local media:
- Had scruples when criticizing the HKSAR government: 31%
- Had no scruples when criticizing the HKSAR government: 63%

Perceived that the local media:
- Had scruples when criticizing the Central Government: 56%
- Had no scruples when criticizing the Central Government: 35%

There is plenty of raw data for analysis and interpretation.  Here I want to pursue an issue that is different from the above.  The usual premise is that Hong Kong is a laissez-faire economy, and that includes the local news media industry.  If there is a demand for a certain style or approach in reporting, the supply will spontaneously emerge.  Or will it?

The indicator of a competitive market in local news media is the presence of diversity.  For example, The Gas Explosion in Hong Kong is an example of how a single event was covered differently in the various local news media.  But actually, this one case study does not represent the general state of things.  My sense is that there is a great deal of homogeneity in the kinds of news stories that are reported.  It would seem impossible for a competitive market to end up with such homogeneous product offerings from most of the economic actors.

The following is a translation of an article titled "The Hidden Rules: The Law of Balance for Media" by 茂斯 posted at InMediaHK:

[in translation]

There are different categories of news: politics, education, health and medicine, law, suddenly breaking events, etc.  Many outsiders think that the journalistic field has a general set of operating standards: independent news gathering and mutual competition.  But these are just the high-minded rules of civilization put on the table, and they only constitute a superficial representation of the profession.  A lot of times, there is the other invisible law of balance that drives some of the media operations.  Media in different areas have different sets of hidden rules.  Some of these rules are understandable, some are unmentionable, some are acceptable compromises and some are extremely reactionary.  Anyone who attempts to disrupt the balance is often swept away.

Capitalism implies competition according to the law of the jungle.  The media are all competing for the same limited number of audience members, and only the fittest survives.  But head-on competition is not the only method to survive.  More often, the media have to rely on "cooperation" in order to live.  After all, there is an infinite amount of information out there and human ability is limited.  Some media cooperate in areas such as sharing photographs, exchanging information or even splitting up the news gathering assignments in order to guarantee that there will not be too many discrepancies among the reports from everybody.  In the end, this results in a "balance" that is relatively safe in a certain sense.  This is a reality that the scholars cannot accept, but it is part of the "hidden rules" that people in journalism will not tell anyone.

If you want to use a dichotomy to make a moral judgment on how the media work, then it is for certain that the media are not pure.  But only politicians and angry youth would look at the media this way.  Perhaps you do not know about the viciousness of the competition among the media.  At some newspapers, losing a news story may mean losing one's job.  The reality is that any news with any value must be pursued and published the next day.  Failing that means a tremendous amount of pressure on those responsible.  Therefore, the media workers frequently maintain close contact with other in order to catch up with anything that they might have missed.

Perhaps some people will say that the journalistic field shoulders the sacred duty of monitoring society, and therefore the violation of journalistic independence cannot be tolerated?  If the media workers are used to eating salty fish, then they must be able to tolerate being thirsty.  Anyone in this profession must withstand the accompanying pressures and defend their purity to death, or else they would be committing a moral crime.  I am not a Christian, but I am reminded by a saying of Christ: "he amongst you who is without sin, let him cast the first stone."

The moral line may be vague, but there has to be a bottom line or else the world becomes unbearably confusing.  In the face of some important events or valuable news, the news department directors will absolutely have cause to revert to the principle of independent journalism.  Without this, there would be no exclusive stories.  The media also have this unwritten common understanding.  They understand that they sometimes do not start at the same line and therefore they sometimes deserve to lose.  The hidden rules also cannot control those news that cannot be disclosed.  It is not necessarily a bad thing for a limited exercise of hidden rules.  A flexible system of balance need not destroy the core values of journalism.  But when the hidden rules are allowed to dominate and the "balance" becomes the iron-clad law, then journalistic ethics will be genuinely damaged.

In the nineteenth century, foreign relations in Europe were based upon a balance of power.  The major powers formed alliances to maintain this balance of power, so that neither side dared to act rashly.  Thus, war was avoided and the status quo was maintained.  The newspapers also have this kind of policy for the balance of power.  This kind of balance of power is quite reactionary and involves a certain kind of laziness.  Journalists who work at the frontline are lazier and their concept for the balance of power is stronger.  Conversely, those carnivores who sit back in the temple halls are less concerned.

When reporters gather news at the same time and place on the same case, they often take care of each other, and they share their information and photographs.  When everybody starts at the same line, the more active reporters will often get more valuable information.  But right now, the hidden rules at the frontlines of some of the news areas are ironclad, so that the "active people" are often regarded as "troublemakers."  Those active reporters are often advised by the reactionary colleagues to back off.  If they step out of line, they will be surrounded and criticized.  In the long run, when the hidden rules totally dominate the frontline reporters, they will become day workers who try their best to shirk overtime work.  They will not be reporters who are actively digging up news.  When that time comes, the vitality of journalism will be thoroughly frittered away.

After I entered journalism, I inched forward carefully on the steel wire of hidden rules.  I observed how many active reporters tripped on the steel wire of the ironclad hidden rules.  I must sigh with sadness: This steel wire is really hard to walk on.