How to get people in China to talk on the record

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post (and comments).

The most common question I get from new hires — and other reporters new to China – is how to get people to talk on the record.

Here’s a typical example:

Assignment: are Chinese furniture manufacturers looking to buy US distributors in order to get customers, marketing and sales?

Easy peasy, right? There are millions of Chinese furniture manufacturers (more or less) and this is not exactly a sensitive investigative story.

Solution: I put together a list of questions — are you? why? how is it working out? what’s next for you? — and put the first writer on the job. After a week of “no comments” she quit the job. Not a single quote.

I handed the list of question to two other writers. Another week passed. A week full of telephone calls — and not a single quote.

Here is what I heard from my researchers (and I’ve heard the same from many other writers in China):

“People in China don’t like to talk on the record.”
“People in China don’t like to speak to foreign reporters.”
“People in China don’t like to speak to Chinese reporters.”
“People in China don’t like to talk to strangers on the telephone.”

I couldn’t ask the questions myself — my Chinese is minimal and while in the financial and tech industries pleenty of people speak in English, in the furniture industry, not so much.

So I picked up the phone. I got a list of Chinese furniture companies online from Alibaba.com, and started calling the contact people listed.

Typical conversation:

“Hello. I am American journalists. I want talk. You have don’t have person speaks English?”

First company: passed me along to a sales assistant. I asked my questions. I got my answers.

Second company: asked me to email questions. They got answers right back to me.

Third company: after the first two broken Chinese phrases from me, I passed the phone to the researcher for the rest of the questions.

End of day: 10 for 10.

What was the difference? It wasn’t that I was a foreigner — plenty of foreigners have problems getting people to talk on the record. It certainly wasn’t that my communication skills were that great.

It is a different of attitude. If your attitude is that people will talk, then people will talk. If your attitude is that people won’t talk, then people won’t talk.

In our office, we have a heavy emphasis on sourcing. We require three different on-the-record sources for every 500 words of story, as a general guideline. One source affected by the news (or user, or buyer), one source making the news (or the vendor), and one expert or analyst.

If you make enough phone calls, somebody is going to talk to you.

The trick is defining “enough.”

“Enough” does not mean “enough phone calls so that the boss knows you tried.”
“Enough” means “enough phone calls to get a quote.”

If it’s the first definition of enough, then you can keep calling until you’re blue and you still won’t have a quote. If it’s the second definition, then that attitude is passed along to the person on the other side of the line, and you’re going to strike payload very quickly.

One thing I love about employees who are new to reporting is that they don’t know yet that “people in China don’t like to talk.” They can get lots of quotes.

And once you get enough people in the office working on the assumption that everybody will talk – well, all of a sudden, everybody starts talking.

Signing off in Shanghai,

Maria