Simon Fraser University PhD candidate Shangyuan Wu takes a critical look at using Western journalism standards in the non-West. Wu is currently conducting a large-scale journalist perceptions study on newsworkers in Singapore and Hong Kong.
Singapore and Hong Kong are two prominent “global cities” in transition. Both stand at critical junctures. Singapore, labelled by scholars such as Rodan (2003) and Harvey (2005) as an authoritarian state, faces the challenge of an increasingly tech-savvy and vocal middle class that wants to have its voice heard, while Hong Kong, a firm believer in the free market and democracy (Chan and Lee, 2007), is currently caught in an awkward position with mainland China and its authoritarian government after the 1997 handover (the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution” is a case in point).
From the outside looking in, it may seem like their news media systems are creaking under the weight of citizen and government demands. Their populations seem to be turning increasingly to the internet and social media for their news intake. One may be led to conclude that their mainstream media are slowly losing their ability to champion the interests of the people. Certainly, based on existing Western-centric journalism scholarship, these are two media systems in trouble. After all, journalism is said to have an important function to play – to promote democracy. It should closely monitor the powerful in society as a “watchdog” and promote free expression and political participation (McNair, 2009). An inability to perform these democratic functions means a news system flawed.
But, is it really? Is the Western lens that we have used to evaluate these non-Western news systems a fair and adequate one?
Liberal Democracy as Guiding Principle – Or Not
The liberal-democratic ideology stemmed from Europe during the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment. It has long been appropriated in Western journalism as an ideal to be reached (Hackett and Zhao, 1998), and as a yardstick against which news systems may be measured. Europe’s domination on the world stage for some 500 years – from the era of colonization in the sixteenth century – and the rise of the US as the world superpower after the Second World War, have seen the liberal-democratic ideology gain ascendency globally, taking on a sort of universal quality that is unquestioned and taken for granted in both the West and many parts of the formerly colonized non-West.
Having had experience working as a journalist in Asia, I have witnessed these influences on my worldviews first-hand. For decades, journalists in the non-West have looked to journalism practices in the West as standards of “good journalism” and have followed journalism curricula shaped by Western scholars. This has undoubtedly colored our perceptions of journalism ideals and crisis.
At the same time, local historical experiences, philosophical traditions, and cultural practices have had a profound impact on the shaping of our consciousness. In the non-West, our minds are an amalgamation of local and Western knowledges – it is uncertain where Western thought even ends and local ideas and values kick into gear.
Interestingly, this complex entanglement between the imperial and the local has never been studied within the context of a “journalism crisis.” Journalists in the non-West have yet to be given a substantial voice in defining for themselves the journalism ideals that they believe in, and the dimensions of journalism crisis that may exist within their specific locales, if at all.
In my initial conversations with journalists in Singapore and Hong Kong, I have reason to believe that while the Western liberal-democratic ideological framework may portray these two news media systems as falling short, local journalists may not believe that the liberal model is always an adequate measure.
There is a keen understanding among these journalists that within their specific political, economic, and social environments, the liberal press model might not work. In Singapore, my conversations have seen many journalists agreeing that the press should work with the government to achieve economic growth and social stability; in Hong Kong, journalists have a sense that China is a part of their new reality and that a new balance must be struck between the government’s interests and the people’s interests. In instances where the local population feels little to no existence of a crisis, or experiences different issues of concern, is it still adequate to make that judgment call of a “crisis” from the outside looking in, based on a Western model that might not work within local contexts?
In my opinion, it is time to give the journalist in the non-West a voice – to act as a subject to determine his own state of affairs. With the survey and interview data that I am collecting from the journalist community in Singapore and Hong Kong,* I strive to paint a better picture of the types of “journalism crisis” paradigms in the non-West. If these journalists are willing to speak, then it is time that the international community is willing to listen.
*The author is currently conducting a large-scale journalist perceptions study with the aim of reaching out to 100 to 200 newsworkers in Singapore and Hong Kong, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Hackett, R. A., & Zhao, Y. (1998). Sustaining democracy?: Journalism and the politics of
objectivity. Broadview Press.
Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
McNair. B. (2009). Journalism and democracy. In M. Wahl-Jorgenson & T. Hanitzsch (Eds.),
The Handbook of Journalism Studies (pp. 237-249). Routledge.
Rodan, G. (2003). Embracing electronic media but suppressing civil society: Authoritarian
consolidation in Singapore. The Pacific Review, 16(4), 503-524.
Shangyuan Wu is a PhD candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her research areas of interest include the political economy of communication, global journalism studies, development studies, and comparative media analysis. Shangyuan is trained in journalism, having worked as a senior broadcast journalist in Singapore, covering the areas of politics, defense, and education. She can be reached at email@example.com
Featured Photo Credit: Shangyuan Wu