Both sides at fault in fake story spat

By Xiaoji Wang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/11 20:58:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


Oscar Garschagen, in his 10th year of working for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, has been accused of fabricating news by his former news assistant Zhang Chaoqun. Zhang has claimed that Garschagen faked quotes, made up names and plagiarized content while reporting in China over the past two years. Garschagen has said that this is "pure nonsense."

I am curious about what led Zhang to make these claims now after apparently putting up with unprofessional practices for two years. If, as Garschagen claimed, Zhang had "no journalistic background," why did he hire him in the first place? He surely had other applicants with more experience. If Garschagen suspects Zhang has connections with state security, why did he hire him and work closely with him for two years?

I cannot read Dutch, so I do not know whether Garschagen is a good writer, but he is certainly an unsuccessful boss when it comes to communication. The "miscommunication" and "irritation" claimed by Garschagen cannot be one-sided.

I am more surprised that the prestigious Dutch newspaper has not yet released the results of any kind of investigation into Zhang's claims. It is not hard to prove whether Zhang is "making up stories" by some research and a few phone calls. It is just a matter of time, and whether NRC wants to do so.

NRC has so far only published a piece which is merely based on Garschagen's reaction.

Indeed, protecting Garschagen serves to protect the reputation of NRC. Its readers may question all of its reports on China if the result of an investigation vindicates Zhang's claims.

I do not think Zhang intended to ruin the reputation of NRC, but how NRC responded has made him angrier and encouraged him to continue his public protest on social media. The debate on social media has been drawing significant attention. Most Dutch readers and foreign journalists will instinctively believe the Dutch journalist because they are not familiar with Zhang but know NRC and have read Garschagen's reports. Zhang's name has probably never appeared in the newspaper.

As expected, the debate soon escalated to the point that all Western media outlets and foreign journalists were being attacked in the Chinese media. The more they got attacked, the more it proved their assumption that the Chinese government is manipulating this incident and that it wants to crack down on foreign media in China.

What I am worried about is that it may put all Chinese news assistants in a more awkward position when they work for foreign media. Some of them have already been called traitors for their choice. 

"News assistant" is a unique title for Chinese journalists who work for foreign media in China and assist foreign correspondents to monitor Chinese news, collect information, organize interviews and conduct translations. Most news assistants are well-educated. They take the chance of working for foreign media to accumulate journalistic experience in international media and sharpen their English.

I have worked for a few Western media outlets before and I learned a lot from my colleagues. They are upright, professional, and particularly critical and cautious when it comes to fact-checking. It is common practice to note in the article if they change a name to protect an interviewee, or if they quote content from the Chinese media. I am astonished to read the claims that Garschagen did not do so, considering he has worked in this industry for 40 years.

Without news assistants, most foreign bureaus could not function. They are the "eyes" and "ears" of foreign agencies and channels for foreign journalists to understand Chinese culture and issues. They take great risks and responsibilities and make a notable contribution to every report. However, due to Chinese government policy, most of them do not have bylines in the reports they are heavily involved in.

Trust and communication are essential between correspondents and news assistants. Surely, everyone has a different approach to news production. Garschagen did not have to use all of the translations and interviews conducted by Zhang.

It is possible Zhang did not know Garschagen had consulted other sources. They could have done a better job in communication as they worked together.

What is happening is unfortunate and ugly. I do believe they both have to take some responsibility for it. None of them have mentioned what was the argument that triggered this incident. More importantly, this debate is just about Garschagen and Zhang, nothing more than that.

The author was a former news assistant for foreign media in China.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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