The Professional Attitude of a Journalist Under Pressure

(Fu Jianfeng's Blog)  October 8, 2006.

[in translation]

The following is an essay that Southern Daily let me write on the subject.  I spent one hour to write this piece, and I think it is a bit unrefined.  But it should provide some self-entertainment on Journalist's Day.

My Professional Attitude Under Pressure.  By Southern Weekend reporter Fu Jianfeng.

"The attitude determines the method; the attitude determines everything," a Southern Daily Group person once said and this saying has been very beneficial to me over the years.  This "attitude" has helped me to get past my moments of near total desperation and then calmly face up to the terror.

This attitude is the professional attitude.  It is the attitude of journalistic professionalism.

As an investigative reporter, my most frequently experience is people refusing to be interviewed and reaching a dead-end.  The deepest feelings are isolation and anxiety.  When faced with refusals and dead-ends, I have gradually learned to be patient and wait for the opportunity . I encourage myself and I refuse to give up.  If I take another couple of steps, there may be an exit.  Or an extra thrust of the shovel in the ground will bring up the gold.  An investigator is like a good hunter.  He must have very good patience, and he must have the ability to seize the opportunity in a flash.

Obviously, this is not a passive kind of patience.  During the process, the top mission is to keep finding informed people and use professional methods to persuade them.  It is normal to be refused repeatedly.  But if I open up my thinking, I frequently find some unexpected informed sources.  

Secondly, when it involves a volatile clash of interests, or if one side is powerful enough to affect the process of the investigation and the publication of the report, then the most frequent method is to surround the event from the outside in order to find enough informed sources; once I have enough core facts, then maybe the powers have nothing to fight back with.  Alternately, I can strike like a thunderbolt and give them no chance to stop the investigation.  

Thirdly, I can use all the legal channels possible to obtain the information.  For example, when I need to investigate the assets of a senior official, I would go to the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and exercise my right as a citizen to obtain the list of companies owned by his family members.  Then one after another, I can reassemble the pieces of public information distributed all over the place in order to come up with the inside story and truth.  For example, when I investigated the case of corrupt official Chenzhou city party secretary Li Dalun, I was unable to find his collected essays.  Suddenly, I remembered that he had forced certain schools and government employees to purchase his books.  Now that he had fallen, his lousy books had probably been sold to used bookstores.  So I went to some used bookstores in Chenzhou and I found what I wanted.

I think methods such as these are only working at the "technical" level.  The key is still about the "thinking" level -- that is, having the professional attitude of a professional journalist and the relentless courage, effort and persistence to discover the truth.  This is how I feel.  With these things, the techniques and adaptability will come as the needs of the investigation arise.

Once an investigation is completed after the hardships, the next step usually entails legal and political risks that the reporter, the editor and even the chief editor dread.  In my opinion, a good investigative reporter should know how to use professional activities to protect himself.  He has to use the appropriate tactics to eliminate the risks with wile and bravery.

When a scholar once discussed with me, he said that it was impractical to speak of the having journalist professionalism in the current environment for journalism in China.  I countered by saying that it was not impractical;  instead, if you follow your professional rules of conduct, it will often be your best guarantee against the risks.  For example, professionalism requires you to seek multiple confirmations for each piece of information and rely as little as possible on single-sourced information, because it will increase the veracity of the investigation.  Professionalism requires us to be objective and balanced and provide a platform for all sides to present their viewpoints.  Even if one side is unwilling to make a statement, there has to be other information favorable to them in order to maintain a balance because this will make even those who are criticized accept the reported facts.  Professionalism requires that we must have convincing physical evidence, documents and witnesses that adhere to the law, or else the other side will destroy the case.  For example, in the aforementioned case, my investigation of the official's family was based upon corporate registration data and files at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and so nobody could complain.  Therefore, I had protected myself and my employer against the risks to a large degree.

Furthermore, the planned tactics beforehand are also important in eliminating risks.  When I handle certain cases with legal and political risks, I usually conduct a large amount of investigative work.  In the published report, I only mention 30% of what I know and I hold the other 70% back.  That 70% will come in very useful when someone comes in to complain.  Once they see the other 70% that I held back, they usually give up quickly.

In summary, when I have a difficult and politically sensitive investigation, I remind myself: "Have you done your best?  Have you located everybody that you need to?  Did your actions go beyond the legal and ethical bottom lines?  Will your actions bring any risk to your newspapers?"  At the same time, I will remind myself that I need to disclose the truth in the name of the public interest as much as I can.  Then I will carefully weight the tradeoffs between these two impulses and seek a balance.

The above are my thoughts and self-imposed requirements in my professional career.  In practice, my work has much that is still inadequate and I appreciate criticisms and suggestions from my fellow journalists.