Events

Environmental Journalism in China

October 18, 2002 // 12:00am
Event Co-sponsors: 
Environmental Change and Security Program

Featuring: San Yanjun, Tianjin Public Radio; James Detjen, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University

By Timothy Hildebrandt and Jennifer L. Turner

The East Asian economic boom in the 1980s generated greater wealth and prosperity, but at a cost of creating serious environmental problems. Air, water, and land degradation were not only catalysts for government and citizen action, but also for news media activism in the region. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, environmental journalism began taking root across East Asia—a great number of weekly papers devoted solely to environmental issues sprang up in South Korea; "green" television programs made their way onto the Hong Kong airwaves; in Taiwan some journalists tried to help disseminate citizen and green group grievances against toxic industries. Today, journalists in Mainland China are beginning to journey down a similar path of using the news media to address environmental concerns. While news media organizations in China face limits on the breadth and depth of their reporting, environmental journalists have enjoyed considerable freedom.

Continuing the work begun in 2001 at the Green NGO and Environmental Journalist Forum held in Hong Kong, the Wilson Center's China Environment Forum hosted an 18 October 2002 meeting that examined the state of environmental journalism in China today. Sun Yanjun offered a unique perspective on the topic as the creator of the first radio program devoted solely to environmental issues at Tianjin Public Radio. Jim Detjen, a prominent U.S. environmental journalist at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, shared insights from his experience lecturing to students of journalism and meeting with media outlets in China as a Fulbright scholar in 2002. Both speakers acknowledged the potential for environmental journalism to take an even more prominent role within the Chinese news media and the positive effect such journalists could have on furthering environmental protection. Nonetheless, inexperienced reporters, limited access to reliable scientific information, and a lack of advertising are some roadblocks to a more widespread environmental media revolution in China.

Land Ho! Discovering Possibilities and Uncovering Challenges
Sun Yanjun's career as an environmental journalist is perhaps a result of Chinese government policy. While the economic reforms in China have increased independent journalism, the Chinese government prefers to use the news media to further policy directives. Since the Chinese leadership has placed environmental concerns high on the national policy agenda in recent years (as well as promising to put on "green Olympics" in 2008), the news media has been given more freedom than usual to report on environmental issues. Certainly, the government has taken steps of its own to promote environmental awareness; the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) and the State Forestry Bureau have been publishing environmental newspapers for 17 and 15 years, respectively. These papers, however, are mainly circulated within government agencies and not to the general public. Journalists and reporters, such as Sun Yanjun, have begun using television, radio, popular newspapers, and the Internet to help promote a green ethic and raise green consciousness amidst a rapidly growing economy and an environment in crisis.

Despite the government's enthusiasm for promoting a greener national agenda, environmental journalism in China is not without obstacles. Sun Yanjun outlined numerous impediments to strengthening environmental journalism in China: (1) uninformed and inexperienced reporters often provide audiences with inaccurate information; (2) press coverage of environmental issues is spotty, offering a great deal of attention to the environment during times of major crises (e.g., 1998 Yangtze River floods, spring dust storms) and events (e.g., National Party Congress, 2008 Olympic bid) but very little interest when such events have ended; (3) environmental-related publications are often either too technical, resulting in inaccessible information, or too broad, with little substantive information from which to learn; (4) top-down, concentrated efforts that mobilize many reporters to discuss one specific environmental issue results in redundant reporting; and perhaps most problematic, (5) editors and producers consider environmental reporting as part of the "charity sector." In other words, these green stories attract little adverting, so news media organizations view such reporting as money-losing endeavors.

These shortcomings offered a true challenge for Sun Yanjun as she began her unique brand of environmental education. Upon learning that not one of Tianjin's radio stations covered environmental issues, Sun recalled feeling "like [she] was Columbus discovering America." Although she acknowledged her lack of environmental background and she faced unenthusiastic producers, her intense belief in media's power of influence drove her to begin Tianjin's first environmental-themed radio program; Sun believed that "if mass media is the first to take action…the public will follow in its footsteps." "Green Global Village" started with the ambitious charge of promoting public awareness and participation in environmental protection, as well as monitoring environmental problems and exposing illegal activities. While Sun has been plagued by worries of continued funding for her work, the public has indeed enthusiastically followed her programming.

As evidence of the power that environmental journalists can wield, Sun recalled an incident that was raised on her radio program's "environmental monitoring hotline." Residents in a Tianjin neighborhood, upset by noise pollution from a nearby boiler and the owner's plans for expansion, contacted her Global Green Village radio program for assistance. For three months, Sun devoted time both on and off air to investigate the grievances and to help the disputants solve the conflict. Sun used her program to create a unique forum for discussion and she invited officials and experts from all relevant sectors: SEPA officials listened to the concerns of both parties, lawyers consulted on the possibility of civil litigation, and environmental scientists discussed the logistics of environmental impact assessments. The issue was opened to the audience as well, which led to lively debates on related topics, from individual environmental rights to corporate responsibility. As a result of Global Green Village's "words combined with action," the boiler company conducted an environmental assessment, abandoned its expansion plans, and paid damage compensation to the residents.

While Sun's experience exemplifies a highly effective role the Chinese media can play in furthering environmental causes, Sun felt that educating the disputing parties and the larger listening community was a victory greater than the actual resolution of the conflict. In addition to promoting environmental dialogues on the radio, Sun has joined with some people in her listening community to form Tianjin's first environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO)—Friends of Green. This environmental education NGO is perhaps the best sign, according to Sun, that environmental awareness has grown in Tianjin. It is increasingly common for environmental reporters in China to be involved in green NGO activity.

Although she has had success, Sun's environmental reporting has been more or less self-taught and she is hungry to improve her reporting. Sun stated that she and other Chinese journalists need to be better informed and could benefit from help and guidance from international colleagues. Such assistance will be crucial for China to professionalize environmental journalism, which could then more effectively educate the public and monitor government policy implementation.

Quiet Revolution: Environmental Journalism's Presence in Popular Media
Sun Yanjun's vision for international exchange and cooperation with environmental journalists has, in part, already begun in China. During the 2001-2002 academic year, Jim Detjen brought his extensive journalism experience to Tianjin's Nankai University as a Fulbright scholar. Among his activities, Detjen instructed a course on environmental journalism, one of the first in Mainland China. Drawing on his experience in lecturing on environmental journalism at universities and conducting workshops with news outlets across China, Detjen echoed the analysis of Sun: though still a small presence and facing many challenges, environmental journalism is growing rapidly throughout China. This growth in environmental journalism is tied in part to the increase in journalism programs within Chinese universities. Detjen remarked that within these newly created university programs the faculty and students have been enthusiastic about western styles of news reporting and specialties such as environmental journalism. For the past five years, Qinghua University's Dupont Environment Awards has awarded $400 prizes for excellence in environmental journalism. These awards illustrate the academic community's commitment to environmental journalism.

Detjen suggested that environmental journalism is part of a "quiet revolution" in the Chinese news media. China's expanding economy has created an environment that is very hospitable to some nontraditional news reporting. China's rising middle class has indeed begun to demand more variety in news—e.g., larger paychecks have made satellite dishes, though illegal, a common sight in urban and rural areas alike; widespread use of the Internet also suggests an increased thirst for information. While Detjen recognized the difficulty of attracting advertising dollars to environmental topics, he theorized that the increasingly market-driven media, having shifted from "the party line to bottom line," will increasingly use "green news" to attract the young and female audiences.

During his fellowship in China, Detjen examined the state of environmental journalism at some of the country's largest news media organizations. The government-published China Daily, China's largest English language newspaper, boasts a staff that includes many U.S.-educated journalists. The newspaper reads much like a government press release, most often relying upon one source, the official Xinhua News Agency. Nonetheless, Detjen explained that the staff was eager to learn more about environmental reporting; China Daily already devotes significant space to issues like air pollution, water shortages, and desertification. To his surprise, the tabloid-style Shanghai Star has demonstrated a great interest in the sensitive topic of the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River—though predictably, the coverage has avoided the most controversial environmental debates surrounding the dam. In addition, the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend, well known for its bold investigative reporting, is expanding its science and environment coverage.

Shackles and Anacondas: The Effect of Censorship on Environmental Reporting
China's most influential news media force is, without question, China Central Television (CCTV). With an audience of almost 300 million within China, CCTV's programming has a tremendous impact on the country. A number of environmental programs are regularly featured on the media empire's various television stations, from relatively mundane reports on endangered species to more controversial profiles on the linkages between corruption and widespread water pollution. CCTV's journalists are subject to serious scrutiny on the stories they produce. While investigative reports are broadcast, those deemed too critical or an embarrassment to individuals, corporations, or the government are usually scrapped. During his visit with CCTV officials, Detjen was informed that official censors had blocked two of four recent environmental-related investigative reports.

While censorship is a part of every Chinese journalist's work, they actually are not regularly subject to the censor's red pen. Instead, reporters exercise a tremendous amount of self-censorship; Sun Yanjun candidly remarked, "As long as we do not cross the boundaries and limits set by the government, we have freedom to report what we want." Though these limits are not clearly defined, Jim Detjen explained that Chinese journalists, by and large, have a good feel for which topics are most sensitive and likely to be restricted. Princeton University professor Perry Link has likened China's brand of media censorship to a "giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier [that] normally does not move. It does not have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its silent message is ‘you yourself decide,' after which everyone below makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite ‘naturally.'"

Indeed, self-censorship is an accepted way of life for environmental journalists. Detjen related a discussion with one of CCTV's head environmental writers who takes a pragmatic view of censorship. The writer explained that while news media freedom is greater today than five years ago, being a journalist in China is like "dancing with shackles." This is not to say that Chinese journalists do not test the official boundaries. News media markets far removed from Beijing have been more adventurous in pushing the boundaries in reporting—e.g., the Southern Weekly in Guangzhou often makes news itself for publishing stories that cross the invisible line. Occasionally, individual journalists do step on the "wrong toes"—after her extensive reporting on the boiler plant dispute, Sun knew to tone down her reporting for while. Another Chinese journalist in the audience recalled her first published article in 1995; in which her report on the realities of prostitution in China resulted in a strong reprimand by her supervisor, though not a pink slip. The reporter recalled feeling a sense of empowerment, but also a stronger awareness of boundaries and how to push them a bit.

Much like its other Asian neighbors, news media in China has undergone gradual change in response to market forces. Chinese journalists are indeed hopeful that greater economic success will translate into greater press freedom. Jim Detjen quoted two journalists from Qinghua University who contend that "The marketization of news in China has turned the role of news reporting as a political propaganda tool to that of industrialization and popularization…. Economists and journalists are of one view that any news organization will be washed out if its news reporting does not meet the taste of the audience." In other words, if journalists like Sun Yanjun can keep the Chinese public interested in environmental issues, green journalism in China is likely to grow.

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