As violence escalates in Hong Kong, newsrooms must make careful decisions about how they present the events of the protests, United States Bureau Chief for the South China Morning Post Robert Delaney said at a Nov. 18 event.
The event titled “Perspective of Journalism in Hong Kong” was co-hosted by SCMP and the Hong Kong Student Association. At the event, Delaney reflected on the current status of reporting about the situation in Hong Kong.
Protests began in the region this June in response to a bill proposed by the Hong Kong government that would permit the Chinese government to extradite criminal suspects from Hong Kong. The bill, introduced in February by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, was withdrawn Sept. 4. However, protesters have continued to demonstrate since the bill’s retraction, demanding Hong Kong’s government address issues of police brutality and increase democratic freedom.
Violence surrounding the protests in Hong Kong has escalated recently, as protesters armed themselves with firebombs and bows and arrows against police in their demonstrations.
With the most recent phase of protests exhibiting the most violence yet, newsroom debates about how to characterize protesters have been prevalent, Delaney said.
“Everyone who’s out on the street, whether they’re just walking quietly and peacefully towards Victoria Park and doing nothing more than showing up, are protesters,” Delaney said. “At the same time you have someone showing up and throwing a molotov cocktail at a police officer and it goes up in flames. If you read the coverage and look at the way we’re characterizing these different groups of protesters, you’ll see some differences.”
In newsrooms, the ethics of whether to identify protesters is a contentious topic, according to Delaney.
“That’s a discussion that causes a lot of handwringing and heartburn in the newsroom,” Delaney said.
As unrest in Hong Kong continues, Delaney said that he cannot predict the future of the protest movement. He said he had expected the protests to settle as China and Hong Kong maintained business relations and underestimated social tensions.
“I had this assumption that was a bit insulting, I now realize, that as long as Beijing allows business to continue as usual, no one is going to get too upset in Hong Kong,” Delaney said. “Well, I was dead wrong. I didn’t understand and I didn’t anticipate the depth of feeling that is happening in Hong Kong.”
After more than 150 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong fell back under Chinese authority in 1997 and became a Special Administrative Region, functioning under a “one country, two systems” policy that allows the region a significant level of autonomy. The protested bill produced controversy over the functional autonomy of Hong Kong given the bill’s extradition allowances.
Not enough people understand the significance of Hong Kong’s colonial past to the current government of China and to Chinese people, according to Delaney.
“I think the depth of that concern and that sensitivity is missed on a lot of people in the U.S., and as much as we possibly can, we try to point that out,” Delaney said. “In the day-to-day reporting, it’s not really something that you can factor into every story.”
Fifteen Georgetown students studying abroad in Hong Kong this semester were told to leave their programs last week following the uptick in political unrest in the city. Within the last week, the previously isolated demonstrations reached the universities Georgetown students were enrolled in, culminating in protesters setting a university building on fire.
Delaney joined SCMP after nearly 20 years of experience working in journalism. Delaney spent 11 years as a correspondent in China for Dow Jones Newswires and Bloomberg covering economics before joining SCMP.
Although journalists have a wide range of stances on the situation in Hong Kong, journalists must still be conscious they are presenting the news accurately, Delaney said.
“I’m not going to lie; there are differences of opinions within the newsroom,” Delaney said. “At the end of the day we have to deliver a report that is going to be as objective as possible.”