Chai Huiqun is involved in a lawsuit against the Chinese Medical Doctors’ Association (CMDA). The health journalist for the Southern Weekly based in Guangzhou claims to defend himself after CMDA named him in a complaint to All-China Journalists Association (ACJA) for allegedly false healthcare reporting. The case brought up by CMDA dates back to 2008 when Chai reported on alleged corruption in purchasing equipment at Mianyang Hospital after a local earthquake.
This is not the first time that Chai becomes the focus of his journalist peers and Chinese health and medical departments. In 2010, he reported about the case of a women’s anus allegedly sewn by a midwife after child delivery in Shenzhen. The case received wide media coverage nationwide. Among all the coverages, Chai became the most disputable journalist for his deep investigative story. Again, Chai was being questioned. CCTV’s Wang Zhian investigated into it and claimed that the story was biased and based on presumption and lack of information from the hospital side.
What can be seen beyond Chai’s cases is the challenge of health reporting in China. Like the journalists covering other beats, health journalists often find it hard to complete deep investigative stories. The resistance comes from both sides. Interested parties like hospitals may refuse to cooperate with investigation; even when a story is finished, it’s likely not going to be published because currently mass media in China is still under control by the government. The lack of transparency in administration sometimes results in the lack of transparency and truth in reporting where journalists could be bribed or produce biased stories.
And the health journalists in China lack proper guidance. The All-China Journalists Association is mentioned before, but it’s a dependent organization led by the Chinese Communist Party, and it mainly functions in the management of media outlet. There is no organizations in China like the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) that focuses specifically on healthcare and medical issues coverages. Chinese health journalists may know the fundamentals of ethical guidelines—journalists in China are required to take a theoretical exam every five years to stay in the legal working status as a journalist, and journalism ethics is one of the six sections of the textbook—but the guidelines are abstract and journalists may find it contradictory to follow all the guidelines at the same time. One of the challenges is how to stay relatively independent in a not independent environment.
Tinker Ready, a health and science journalists and the writer of Boston Health News, says in an e-mail how individual writers keep independent and stick to journalism instead of market promotion:
“Freelancing, content marketing and the growth of online advocacy reporting present ethical issues for health writers, mostly around bias and conflict of interest. For example, a lot of health freelancers write for university or hospital websites or publications that are edited to avoid anything that might put the institution is a negative light. Or they write for advocacy groups, like the National <Name the Disease> Association… I don’t consider any of these websites or publication to be journalism… Journalism is independent; the goal it to serve the reader, not an institution or company or cause. The best way to handle conflicts is to avoid them. The other option is to clearly disclose them. When I wrote a story about that involved a hospital union, I included a tagline that noted I was a member of a different local (chapter) of the same union, which is also organizing adjunct faculty members. The goal is to alert the reader to the possibility of bias.”
The independent health site, Connecticut Health Investigative Team (C-HIT), also stress how they stay independent. C-HIT “may consider donations to support the coverage of particular topics, but…maintains editorial control of the coverage.” Its board of directors, varying from journalists to employees in the medical and health care fields, “…provides expertise, guidance and operational support to C-HIT, but has no control or input into editorial decision-making.”
And here’s how the Association of Health Care Journalist states in terms of independence:
“We should strive to be independent from the agendas and timetables of journals, advocates, industry and government agencies… Health journalists have a responsibility to be selective so that significant news is not overwhelmed by a blizzard of trivial reports. We are the eyes and ears of our audiences/readers; we must not be mere mouthpieces for industry, government agencies, researchers or health care providers.”
The Association of Health Care Journalist states that all the SPJ codes of ethics—seek the truth, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable—apply to health and medical reporting as well. In the latest version of the China News Workers’ Code of Professional Ethics (2009), seek the truth (真实性) is listed as one of the major codes. Being accountable and minimizing harm is not written in black and white, but it can be paraphrased from the code of serving the people (服务). Independence is mentioned as media outlets cannot make illegal profits (经营) out of reporting and should strictly distinguish news reporting from advertising. But the first two codes states that media outlets should be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (忠于党) and should focus reporting on positive side (正面宣传).
These codes restricts the independence of media in another way. In Chai’s case, he obviously didn’t “follow the codes.” I believe what he chases for is full independence. It can be hard to apply SPJ codes to health reporting in China, but I believe even when facing with restrictions, health journalists should keep the spirit of independence and revealing the truth—health reporting is about the public, not the Party.
Below is some proposed ethics guidelines for health journalists in China that I think would be somewhat practical:
- Pledge loyalty to the public and readers. Ask yourself before writing a story: What’s the journalistic purpose in the story? What parties should you interview to ensure the accuracy to the greatest extent? If a story raises controversy, find out what makes it controversial, review feedbacks from all parties involved and do follow-up reporting.
- But keep independent. While comments from all angles should be considered, this is your story. Stick to what you believe is right to report on. Never, ever interview someone whom you knows well. I’ve stated in my personal ethics guidelines that I won’t consult with my acquaintances in their expertise. If you happens to have a friend who works in a hospital that will appear in your story, don’t try to get information from your friend. Ask somebody else.
- Be sympathetic to patients and medical personnel, but stay objective. Nowadays in China, there’s a point of view that covering the darker side of hospitals intensifies the conflicts between doctors and patients and causes “yinao,” a form of medical disputes involving act of violence. Medical personnel blames the media for digging out too much the perpetrators’ stories and relatively ignoring the act of crime. Don’t take sides. Include both in your story. What you should dig out is what causes the tragedies from both parties’ perspective and how to prevent potential cases in the future.
- Weigh the possible harm you will cause and then make decision. Revealing the dark sides of a local hospital may lead to temporary lack of medical support in the area and unemployment for many medical personnel, but if it can result in for a greater good, do it.
- Be patient. Obtain sufficient information before you write a story. If you meet with obstacles when trying to obtain official information, try it again. Meanwhile, search for equivalent information. State clearly in the story that these information are only for reference and official departments turn down your request. Don’t create bias by leaving out any relevant parties even that all you can write about them is “no comment.”