Monthly newsletter: September 2019

Message from Keith

First of all, welcome to the new class of Master of Journalism students, and to the latest entry class of Bachelor of Journalism (BJ) students, who will finish in 2023. These cohorts have the distinction of being our 20th class of students at the JMSC, and we are excited to see such a continuing strong interest in journalism over these two decades.

These new cohorts, and our returning BJ students, are in Hong Kong at a particularly tumultuous time. Our city has been wracked by more than 13 weeks of protests over the now-suspended, much-despised China extradition bill. Recent weekends have seen a marked escalation in violent clashes between protesters and riot police.

Journalists have found themselves at the middle of the conflict. Reporters on the front lines have been hit with tear gas, pepper spray and with police truncheons; videographers have had police shine laser lights at their cameras to prevent them from filming; and media organizations, including the Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong, have issued statements decrying the violence directed against journalists who are trying to do their jobs and faithfully chronicle these historic events.

For the most part, I think journalists have been doing an incredible job covering the protests under extremely difficult circumstances, including facing physical danger, harassment, intimidation and online threats. There are long days and hours in sweltering heat and torrential rains. There has been misinformation, disinformation and sometimes a lack of any information. But reporters have still managed to produce some admirable journalism under tough conditions.

Here are a few of my takeaways after closely following the more than three months of protests.

First, social media sites—and for me, Twitter—have emerged as essential news platforms for up-to-the-minute details on the latest happenings. I have been following the protests mainly through the Twitter feeds of some of the top reporters and analysts on the front lines, and their posts are typically well-informed and accurate. I used to doubt whether a platform like Twitter could ever really rival an old-fashioned print newspaper or even a newspaper website for covering breaking news, but I must admit, I am now a convert.

Second, I have always known—and tried to impart to our students—that words matter, and the protest coverage has reinforced that view. I have seen stories, in the South China Morning Post and other outlets, referring to Hong Kong as in the midst of “chaos,” “mayhem” and “anarchy.” One article reported how “masked radicals” supposedly “went on a rampage.” One news website carried the recent headline; “Hong Kong is on fire.” And protests that have descended into violence are typically described as “riots” and protesters as “rioters.”

I’m old enough to remember the 1967 riots in Detroit, where 43 people were killed, businesses were looted and burned to the ground and National Guard troops deployed to restore order. I also remember watching televised images from the Los Angeles riots of 1992 that left 63 dead, more than 2,000 injured and some US$1 billion in property damage.

In Hong Kong, when young protesters were chased into high-end shopping malls like Pacific Place, not a single store window was broken and not a single item was reported stolen. Can this really be accurately described as “rioting”? I don’t think so. Many of my friends and colleagues have never even seen a protest in Hong Kong other than the live feeds of local news outlets—hardly a case of a city “on fire.”

My third takeaway is that a renewed focus on journalists’ safety and training is paramount. The recent protests have shown how a reporter does not need to be in a war zone to face grave physical danger. Responding to events, the FCC has put on a series of safety workshops for journalists. We at JMSC will be doing the same thing here in September—workshops on physical safety, digital security, legal safety and first aid—even though we do not intend to send our journalists-in-training out to any frontline protest sites.

We will also be hosting a panel discussion on “The Protests and The Press” for September 12 where many of these issues will be debated and discussed.

These are tumultuous times, for our society and for journalism. We need to also make sure to seize this time as a learning opportunity.

Keith Richburg
Director of the JMSC