Bribing reporters now illegal in China

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.

On Tuesday, the Chinese government issued a degree making it illegal to bribe journalists to run (or not run) stories. Here’s the China Daily story.

I don’t know how I feel about this. On the one hand: bribery – bad. Ethics – good.

On the other hand – freedom of the press.

There are plenty of journalists who take money from sources in the United States. In Singapore, I met a few who claimed they were able to keep things “separated in their heads” so the money wouldn’t influence their coverage.

And then there are publications that out-and-out sell advertising space. We all know who they are. Everybody knows. And it’s obvious to the readers that they do it. These are mostly small pubs focused on narrow business segments or on the small towns where they’re based, but it happens at bigger pubs, too.

One magazine I freelanced for (waaay back) told me to call advertisers first for quotes.

And, one year, I wrote a few dozen “advertorial” articles about advertisers for a suburban Detroit paper. Yes, it was clear to me that these were advertorials (there was a little label to that effect somewhere on the supplement) but I’m sure plenty of readers thought this was straight editorial — though unusually up-beat and cheerful.

I do believe that the free press is worth having, warts and all.

I believe that if a newspaper or magazine fawns too much over its advertisers, circulation will drop and it will go out of business. Also, it will lose its best staffers and eventually wind up with the rejects that nobody else wants to hire — and nobody wants to read. (As well as a few good people stuck there by temporary necessity, but furiously looking for a way out.)

But I am pleased that attention is being paid to the problem — maybe, in a few years, there will be a population of experienced, ethical Chinese journalists that foreign publications can start hiring from.

Signing off in Shanghai,