Foreign correspondents share views on the state of journalism

BenitoLink kicks off its speaker series in San Juan Bautista.

BenitoLink celebrated its 10th year of being a news source for San Benito County by hosting its Let’s Talk Local Journalism dinner on May 7 at the Baumgartner Ranch in San Juan Bautista. the event was sponsored by Morris Grassfed Beef and the Community Foundation for San Benito County.

Approximately 30 community members attended at the invitation of BenitoLink. Foreign correspondent Ralph Jennings and career journalist Cindy Sui, who are married, spoke about their experiences reporting from China for major news organizations.

Jennings has worked for Reuters in Taipei, Taiwan, and has reported in East Asia for Associated Press, Forbes Media, The Los Angeles Times and Voice of America. Sui has reported for local, regional and international media in the US and East Asia, including the International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times and NBC News. She currently writes for the BBC, her main platform for Chinese reporting.

Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.

The couple shared their experiences as foreign journalists in China, where they said free speech is suppressed. They touched on US relations with China since the Russian invasion of Ukraine; spoke about the validity of information that American reporters publish, and the manner in which foreign journalists in China obtain information and interviews for their stories.

Given China’s historical alliance with Russia, Sui said that she hopes China “does the right thing” if Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine were to escalate by bringing China into it.

“I think for it [China] to have the confidence to do the right thing, it needs to have more than just one strong friend, which right now is Russia,” Sui said. “I think it has to have the confidence that the US is not going to see it as a forever enemy.”

Jennings said he feels China was broadsided by Russia’s war on Ukraine, and wants to be seen as “the good guy.”

“They want to be seen as being distant from the war, and not part of it, and not involved in it,” he continued. “We have the rumor or the prospect that China will attack Taiwan very much as Russia has attacked Ukraine. So could they do that? That’s what we, the media, have been asking and scholars have been asking in general. I think that China would prefer to exhaust its diplomatic, peaceful means of talking, and just really let that run its course, if possible, before an attack.”

According to Sui, part of the job for journalists in China involves finding safe ways to gather local news.

“In China, police make arrests at interview scenes, take away film and send reports back to the foreign ministry,” Jennings said.

He said journalists in China are not allowed to write about issues such as the government’s legitimacy, COVID-19, or Chinese foreign policy.

“There are a few things that you can talk about within a narrow bandwidth, like environmental issues, some social issues, economic issues, but you cannot say what you really want and you cannot organize,” Jennings said. “Why? Because they are afraid that their power will be disrupted and compromised.”

“When we were working there around 1999 to 2006, we were foreign correspondents, not domestic media, so we did not come under the same kind of pressure as domestic journalists,” Sui said. “We were able to report basically everything and anything, as long as we could get away with it.”

As foreign correspondents, however, Sui said she and Jennings went “through extremes” to get information and interviews.

Reporting on topics such as mining accidents and the death of Pope John Paul II—when interviewing Chinese Catholics required visiting illegal, underground Catholic churches—forced correspondents to work “undetected,” Sui said, adding that she has conducted interviews while hiding in the homes of locals and by making phone calls to villagers in taxis while being chased by police.

“Foreign journalists in China have to really think on their feet to get the story done,” she said.

BenitoLink board member Dave Wright said he has noticed a difference in the way foreign news outlets reported on issues, compared with the US

“With the BBC, you get a completely different picture from what we get here,” Wright said. “I was in Singapore when Obama was inaugurated. The news that was reported there about him was very promising; it was different; it was a different way of presenting the news. It was more cordial at that time.”

Jennings said that since returning to the US in 2021, after living in Taiwan for 11 years, he had recognized a shift in US journalism, expressing concern about newsrooms having small, or poorly trained staffs and resorting to “lazy-bureaucrat psychology.”

(Left to Right) Julie Morris, Ralph Jennings, Cindy Sui, BenitoLink Executive Director Leslie David and Community Foundation for SBC President Gary Byrne.  Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.
(Left to Right) Julie Morris, Ralph Jennings, Cindy Sui, BenitoLink Executive Director Leslie David and Community Foundation for SBC President Gary Byrne. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.

“We’re becoming a place that depends on press release journalism,” he said. †[Journalists] have become receivers of news instead of generators of news on our own. It doesn’t mean we don’t try; we make calls and we leave messages, but we’re not getting what we need. So what we have on our hands is a statement. And no one is calling us back, so what do we do? We use the statement. It’s not enough, we haven’t established the whole story.”

San Juan Bautista resident Phil Esparza, who also serves on BenitoLink’s board of directors, felt the event was a “great first step” in highlighting the current and problematic issues that perhaps hinder American journalists from bringing factual and complete stories to the public.

Esparza particularly shared his concerns on the local level, and said he would like to see something similar to this gathering occur in San Benito County’s local newsrooms.

“We need to figure out ways to have a session with the staff, with these same professionals, because I think they would learn so much,” Esparza said.

“Because BenitoLink is a local information and news source, we have to increase the trust bond with the entire community. They may not always agree with what’s being said, but we need to get the full story so that people are informed.”

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