Last week, Zhang Chaoqun, a former news assistant for Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad in Shanghai, very publicly leveled a series of serious allegations against his correspondent, Oscar Garschagen, for fabricating stories. The case received significant attention in the Chinese media and attracted heated discussion on Twitter. I want to share my thoughts on the subject, from my perspective as a former news assistant.

In over a decade of working first as a news assistant for a US-based newspaper, and now as a PR specialist who tracks foreign media coverage of China closely, I have seen many disputes between foreign correspondents and their news assistants. Many of these disputes get posted in a chat group for the Chinese News Assistants Club (中秘俱乐部 zhongmi julebu) — or, as some of the correspondents call it, “The News Assistant Mafia.” There is outrage and discussion, then the whole thing gradually dies down.

I admit that when I saw Zhang Chaoqun’s WeChat post on Sunday night, I was really surprised, because based on my personal experience of working with foreign correspondents, most of them are great journalists. My former boss, Peter Ford from the Christian Science Monitor, was maniacal in his pursuit of the truth. He always dug for first-hand information and a fresh angle, even if the story had already been written by New York Times and everybody else. Of course, there are mistakes in foreign media coverage, but I believe most are unintentional, and due to lack of information or resources or the difficulties of reporting in a country where the state actively works to prevent foreign media access.

Based on my personal experience of working with foreign correspondents, most of them are great journalists

I have seen firsthand how difficult reporting from China can be for foreign correspondents. They are routinely harassed, sometimes even physically attacked, followed, and face constant barriers in their job. My concern is not with the foreign correspondent community, but with how the parent company, NRC, handled this particular case.

Zhang Chaoqun accused Mr. Garschagen of fabricating interviews, plagiarism, and other serious allegations. These are the kinds of allegations that end careers. So I consider this a very serious matter, and don’t want to jump to a conclusion about who is telling the truth without seeing solid evidence. I am not saying that Zhang Chaoqun’s accusation is without basis, but I’d rather give Mr. Garschagen the benefit of the doubt and hear his side of the story.

However, when I saw NRC Handelsblad’s headquarters’ lengthy response, I felt very disappointed. I understand that Zhang Chaoqun’s approach to disclose the case on a public platform without consulting NRC’s internal procedures put that organization in a difficult position, but rather than conduct an independent investigation to clear Mr. Garschagen’s name and take the moral high ground, the organization decided to muddy the waters and accuse the news assistant of “refusing to cover the 19th party congress” and “having contact with Chinese state security.” This is not wise, since it has nothing to do with the accusation, and does little to solve the problem or restore Mr. Garschagen’s reputation.

Chinese news assistants perform a job that is not well known by the public. Due to language barriers and official hurdles, many correspondents rely on their news assistants for story ideas, finding interviewees, translation and research. News assistants are heavily involved in almost every aspect of coverage, but most of the time, their names never appear on the stories they help to write.

Part of this is because Chinese nationals are officially prohibited from having by-lines in the overseas media. Part of it, though, is for their own safety.

Chinese nationals employed by foreign media often face even greater risks than their foreign bureau employers.

Chinese news assistants perform a job that is not well known by the public. Due to language barriers and official hurdles, many correspondents rely on their news assistants for story ideas, finding interviewees, translation and research.

This is even more true when covering sensitive subjects, such as Tibet, human rights or politics. Chinese news assistants take significant risk when they accompany their employers into the field. Local officials know there are limits to what they can do to a foreign correspondent,  but those same officials have no such limitations when it comes to Chinese news assistants — some have faced jail time.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper called “Tales of a Media Sherpa” about the challenges news assistants face. I stand by that metaphor. Just like the Sherpas of the Himalayas, news assistants carry a heavier burden and face the same — or greater — risks, while their employers usually get most of the credit. News assistants are frequently asked to sacrifice their safety to report a story, and readers or viewers of the finished piece will often never know their names.

NRC’s accusation that Zhang Chaoqun refused to fully divulge the extent of his contact with state securities is a thorny issue that Chinese news assistants face. Many news assistants have had the experience of being invited for tea by state security, normally going through routine questions such as what the correspondents are writing about and who they are talking to.  As I mentioned, I personally experienced that, and it was a scary experience.

News assistants are frequently asked to sacrifice their safety to report a story, and readers or viewers of the finished piece will often never know their names

As Chinese citizens, we don’t enjoy many legal protections, but since we work in journalism we have seen what the government can do. Many news assistants are hired directly by their correspondents (in the past, many were employed via state agencies). The assistants generally doubt that if the state acts against them, the correspondents or the media companies will be able to do anything to help them. Many news assistants are caught between their employers and the state. To refuse to meet with state security puts them in legal jeopardy, but these meetings can cause the correspondent to lose trust in their news assistants, and when you’re in the field, in risky situations, that bond and that trust are important.

So, what often happens is that the news assistant complies with state security and, whether they give them information or not, will often be reluctant to publicize these meetings — even to their boss. I don’t know the details of Zhang Chaoqun’s meetings with state security alleged by NRC, but there is a context for withholding this kind of information.

This case is most unfortunate, and I am sure it won’t be the last one. The relationship between foreign correspondents and their news assistants can be a strong bond with great mutual trust. I remember every time when I was about to go on a risky reporting trip, Peter, my boss, always asked me whether I was willing to go or not. And I went on every trip because I knew he would have my back and I would have his. However, I can also understand why some news assistants don’t want to take risks, or refuse to disclose their interaction with authority.

Zhang Chaoqun’s allegations also go beyond a dispute between an employer and an employee. They touch on something more fundamental: Journalistic Principles. Both sides should take these very seriously.

I have a lot of experience writing statements for organizations in crisis, and would like to provide my communication expertise to NRC: The audience is always sympathetic to the underdog. A respected news organization needs to take the high ground by launching an independent investigation and providing trustworthy evidence to the public. Changing the topic by smearing your former employees will never help your reputation, and will only make people wonder about the true reason behind the accusations.

Hopefully, in the weeks to come, NRC will undertake a serious investigation into this case which may hopefully, in the end, clear up the whole thing.

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Yajun is co-host of Radii’s Wǒ Men podcast — check that out here

Cover photo: NOS