Foreign media on China

The WSJ China Journal's Sky Canaves talks law and farmers

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Image: courtesy of the journalist

Sky Canaves is a Wall Street Journal journalist based in Hong Kong, currently responsible for the online China Journal which compiles on a daily basis a list of English blog commentaries about China.

The China Journal covers China's developing blogosphere. They recently dissected Wen Jiaobao's first online discussion and told the tale of Bujingqi.com, a website created by graduates who found the slumping economy depressing.

Previously a lawyer, but making the switch to journalism after studying at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center (home to the China Media Project), Sky talks about law, Liu Xiaoyuan and what drives her to report.

What has been your best experience working for a foreign news organization in China?

The most memorable experiences are those that introduce me to people I wouldn't have met otherwise, where I have a substantial amount of time to listen to what they have to say. On my first reporting trip in 2007 I spent four hours interviewing Beijing lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan and his client Li Zhiping, a farmer who had had been tried and sentenced to death for a 1983 murder. A higher court overturned the verdict twice and sent the case back for retrials, and Li was eventually set free in 1990, though the charges against him hadn’t been removed from his record. Lawyer Liu was trying to get his record cleared so that they could seek compensation for Li's wrongful imprisonment. I felt humbled by that experience — even though I spent over two years in working on China-related matters at a big law firm, I learned a lot about how the legal system works in practice from Liu and Li.

What do you think are the difficulties for journalists working in China?

I'm based in Hong Kong, so I don't enjoy as much freedom to travel in China as I did to in my pre-journalism days. Every reporting trip to China has to be approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and even when traveling to China for leisure, I can only get single entry visas for the exact dates of my trip and can’t do any casual reporting, even for the blog. That is a personal hassle, but it’s typical of the kinds of bureaucratic inconvenience that journalists encounter in mainland China, where there’s always a sense of being in a special designated class as a journalist...

A more universal problem for foreign journalists working in China is the challenge of conveying the diversity and scale of the country. There are so many variables in terms of regions, languages, education, wealth, etc., that the reality is often far more complex than what’s possible to describe in any single article.

With a background in the law, what are your thoughts on the connection between being a journalist and the law?

Both fields are extremely detail-oriented and use writing as the primary form of communication. But legal writing tends to be very exhaustive in its coverage of the subject matter, while the writing I do now has to be very economical and in some ways more careful as a result. Another aspect that took some adjusting to is the difference between a lawyer’s duty to protect information and the journalist’s duty to get people to disclose that confidential information.

What are the cross-over points and the disadvantages of being a lawyer and a journalist?

In both law and journalism, my interest in China has been the key driver and focal point. When I decided to change careers, I knew that I wanted to stay in Asia, and the the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong seemed like a natural choice since there aren’t many English-language journalism courses on offer here. It’s a small program with a very supportive faculty and while there I was introduced to reporting beyond print. We were required to do coursework in video and online reporting, which gave me some familiarity with the different approaches to storytelling. I also had a chance to work in a couple of different newsroom environments and those experiences eventually brought me to The Wall Street Journal.

What are some of the barriers that you face as you monitor China's blogosphere?

There’s a huge volume of material to follow nowadays, which is great but also occasionally daunting. I follow about 120 English-language blogs about China to compile the daily blog roundup. For blog posts and story ideas, I look at several dozen Chinese language blogs, as well as Twitter, English and Chinese Web portals, and the wire services.

I’m also always thinking about our various audiences. First, we have Wall Street Journal subscribers. Most of the WSJ subscribers are in the U.S. and may not have specialized knowledge of China or the language, and I want to make the blog accessible and interesting to them. Then there are people who are more familiar with China, such as the folks at Danwei. And last but not least, we also have a Chinese-language readership. Selected posts are translated and appear on the Chinese WSJ Web site, where they attract a lot of interest and commentary.

In terms of Chinese news content, is it hard or easy to separate good content from nationalistic or otherwise biased or commercial content?

Chinese media reports can present a challenge. On the one hand, there are the official media outlets, such as Xinhua, People’s Daily and CCTV, which can be quoted freely as representing the official views of China, though they don’t always tell the full story. Then there are the more independent, market-oriented publications, many of them local, which tend to carry interesting or even sensational news, though it’s not always possible to verify the facts behind the reporting. I'm encouraged to see media sources such as Caijing and the publications of the Southern Media Group, which are fairly independent and feature quality reporting.

What category of bloggers do you think are the best in China? Would you categorize bloggers in any particular way, such as by the decade that they were born in?

I don’t tend to distinguish Chinese-language bloggers by age-groups any more than I distinguish English-language bloggers by age groups, which is to say not at all. I’m not that young myself so, in both English and Chinese, I gravitate towards older, more serious writers, such as lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan.

I’m a big fan of the sites that serve as a platform for citizen journalism, such as Bullog, and the individual bloggers who style themselves as one-person news sources. They take risks by blurring the lines between media and personal expression.

In general, I find the development of China's Internet to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the country's modernization. This development has been so rapid over the last few years, and it’s exciting to see so many people of all ages coming to the Internet at the same time and making use of the applications available to them - from blogging to social networking to instant messaging — in a very social way. There’s a great energy among China’s Internet users that was very palpable at the Chinese blogger’s conference last year (in Guangzhou) and I certainly hope to attend again this year.

What are your areas of interest in China reporting, and what do you hope to achieve in 2009?

The pressing social issues that are often cited as the top concerns among Chinese people — employment, health care, education, corruption — and how these are being addressed by the government and the people, along with the impacts of the economic downturn on various groups — the rising middle class, young people who have only known the boom years and the elderly who lack a safety net.

This year I’ll continue my work on the blog, expanding its China coverage in collaboration with the rest of the WSJ’s China reporting team. On a personal note, I’m looking forward to a long overdue return visit to Nanjing, where I lived ten years ago, and seeing how much it has changed since.

There are currently 3 Comments for The WSJ China Journal's Sky Canaves talks law and farmers.

Comments on The WSJ China Journal's Sky Canaves talks law and farmers

Sky Canaves is a fine journalist. Her law background probably made her detail-oriented. But I can't say that journalists in general are detail-oriented, especially when it comes to reporting on things happening in other countries. Journalism is about reporting familiar stories, quoting familiar lines, and reducing complex issues to simple good versus evil stories that make your readers back home feel good.

Thanks for the interview, for some time already I was curious to know more about Sky, whom I see all the time in the little picture on WSJ China Journal.

One thing I don't understand is: why don't WSJ base their China Journal Team in the mainland? Wouldn't it be much easier to travel around without need of permits? Or are they just not allowed to do that?

Thanks so much for this as I, being a follower of her China Journal pages, have long been curious to know more about Sky as well.

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