While reporting in Asia for more than a decade, Mei Fong investigated the controversial backstage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, visited the site of debris after the Sichuan earthquake, and disclosed the hidden link between a small town’s brand-new factory and its climbing cancer rate.
Fong’s commitment to finding the human story behind major economic events and natural disasters earned her the 2007 Pulitzer Prize International Reporting with her colleagues from The Wall Street Journal. She was also a finalist for the 2009 Society of Professional Journalists’ Deadline Award for her reporting on the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.
Fong is currently on sabbatical leave from The Wall Street Journal, where she most recently worked as the paper’s China correspondent. She teaches global journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
Below she shares tips from her reporting experiences and offers advice for journalists seeking stories connected to Asia.
1) What preparation do U.S. reporters need before going to Asia?
First of all, learn the language as much as you can, and learn about the history, the background, the current issues. Nobody comes to the ground fully prepared, but you try as much as you can.
Whenever it’s possible, never do parachute journalism. People are based on the ground for years to cultivate sources. In some cases, yes, you are doing parachute journalism, for example, for huge earthquake, or political disasters… But as much as possible, you should know the ground beforehand.
I knew a foreign correspondent, he lived in a five-star hotel, he never ate Chinese food, and didn’t speak any of the language… I questioned him how much can you know about what the reality is if you live in that little bubble?
But you don’t necessarily have to live as a local either. Before you are there, when you are there, always have an inquiring mind. What you do bring to the table as a foreign correspondent, but not as a local, is this ability to see something new. Sometimes it takes an outsider to come inside to see the big picture and why it’s important. As a reporter, you always need a sense of an outsider.
2) What challenges did you face while reporting in China?
There isn’t a lot of press freedom in China. For example, it’s very difficult to getting to talk to officials in state-owned companies. Very frequently, you wouldn’t get much of anything. You don’t have the institutions you can ask for research documents and information.
The big issue is, even if you are foreign press, you might be forbidden or put in danger to report on something substantial. But that’s nothing to what will happen to your interviewees, who might get into a lot of trouble, much more than you. So one of the difficulties is always to protect your sources.
Prior to 2008, when foreign journalists are required by law to apply to local authorities to report in their area. So, if for example you were a foreign journalist accredited in Beijing, and you wanted to do a story in, say, Guangzhou, you had to ask the Guangzhou authorities for permission. This slowed down the reporting process considerably, and usually meant you would never get permission to report on politically sensitive stories.
In practice, most foreign journalists will try to get down there, report the story and get back, before the local Wai Ban (Foreign Affairs Office) can catch you and kick you out.
In 2008, Beijing government lifted this restriction, with the exception of Tibet, so foreign journalists had greater freedom to report around China. The Chinese government had to loosen press restrictions as part of their promise to host the Olympic Games and uphold Olympic ideals.
I think things are opening up a lot, more than it used to be. People reporting in China tell us it’s a lot easier now, especially in the area of financial news about companies that are listed. They have an obligation to disclose more, and there are more avenues for them to call you back and say something. They have to because they have to take into account what the investors will think.
3) What did you do if you suspected sources were not telling the truth?
You use the “Three-Source Rule.” One source says one thing, and then you try to check it against what other sources are saying. And if it contradicts with one another, one source is not telling the truth perhaps. You never depend on one source.
The best reporters are not the ones who get somebody from the government or official sources. Generally they will keep saying the same thing over and over again. You have to hold the official source’s reply, but you also have to cultivate unofficial sources within a company, maybe people that are higher up and are willing to talk to you off-the-record, and tell you whether things are this way or that way.
But the official sources can tell a lot too, not necessarily what they want to tell you, but it can be very telling. For example, in the Sichuan earthquake, one of the big issues was the number of victims at one point. People were trying to figure it out. It was very hard because the government would officially not give the number for a very long time. So you always have to find other sources. You never had the 100 percent answer, but you can tell the reader: this is what the government says, and this is what some other sources say… This is journalism, you will never get the 100 percent answer, but you try.
4) How do you ensure protection of your sources?
Some stories are more sensitive than others, so you have to protect your sources. For example, there was one period when I was doing reporting on a story about a factory opening in a small town. After the factory opened up, the cancer rate in the district went up a lot, and the whistleblower, who was a doctor, got a lot of people in the town to sue the factory… And although people in the town won the lawsuit, they never got paid very much, and the doctor got into trouble, he lost his license and his wife left him in the end.
When I went down there and interview him, I had to hide my notebook in my clothes. My fellow reporter was male, so it was better to hide it with me because the male public security officer was hesitant to search females… So make sure whatever the notes you have, especially on sensitive issues, they don’t fall into the hands of local authorities.
When reporting on sensitive stories and meeting with sensitive sources, be careful with cellphone usage, as authorities can track your location using your cellphone. So when you go somewhere sensitive, turn off your cellphone and take the battery out, because they can be used to locate you.
I used to know one reporter who used to do all the interviews of sensitive subjects in cars and vehicles so they would not be caught by public security, because the car is going round and round when you are talking to them.
The most important is that you have to be aware of the dangers that might happen to the people you are talking to. You can write this great amazing story that shines a light on what’s going on, but there are people on the other end who might suffer.
5) How can reporters relate a story happening in Asia to a U.S. audience?
The two countries (China and the U.S.) are so intimately involved now, economically at least. They are both major trading partners, China holds a lot of U.S. dollars, certainly China is interested in what’s going in the U.S. economically, and three quarters of the things that Americans use are made in China. It’s not hard to make the connection with audience.
When I was in Hong Kong, I covered this huge manufacturer in Shenzhen. It manufactures Christmas trees and was the world’s biggest Christmas tree manufacturer. And all of its Christmas trees will end up in Wal-Mart. So your readers in America can quickly make the connection.