Continuing the Discussion: Censorship in China: Self-censoring is Not Only a Chinese Problem


Last week, an article in The New York Times claimed that Bloomberg News has been killing stories that might anger the Chinese government. According to the article, the stories in question would have exposed ties between a Chinese billionaire and members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. The New York Times claims Bloomberg killed the story to avoid upsetting the Chinese leadership and losing their ability to report in China.

Whether the killing of the story was a form of self-censorship as the NYT claims, or an editorial decision as Bloomberg claims, the article has raised issues about how foreign news organizations navigate the tricky business of maintaining journalistic integrity under the threat of being kicked out of the country and losing access altogether. The irony of news organizations self-censoring to maintain their ability to report is glaring, but it is important to remember that pressures to self-censor are not only in China.

In China, the pressure to self-censor comes mainly from a fear of angering the government, which controls access to visas for foreign journalists, among other things. Since pieces highlighting the wealth of China’s top leaders were published by Bloomberg and the New York Times in 2012, the websites of the two news organizations have been blocked within China and Bloomberg has not been able to get visas for any new journalists.

While this type of external pressure to self-censor is perhaps more obvious in China than in places like the U.S., journalists everywhere face the same dilemma: how do you maintain a good relationship with a source that your reports are likely to upset?

While Americans may be especially averse to the thought of a government policing the content of news, the government and large corporations in the U.S. are also able to use access to information as a tool that can indirectly influence content. Writing a profile on a politician requires a lot of access to the subject, and one that puts the politician in a bad light might jeopardize the reporter’s access to not only this politician but other sources in the future.

There are always risks involved in investigative reporting, whether it is the threat of physical harm in war reporting, the threat of deportation in China, or the threat of losing a valuable source, and weighing the costs and benefits of taking these risks is something journalists grapple with everyday. While we may disagree with some of the decisions that are eventually made, we cannot deny that this deliberation is part of the journalistic process everywhere.

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