The Shanghaiist: online journalism in China

As soon as I was selected for this program, I knew I was interested in being a Journalism intern. I was editor of my high school paper, I love to write, and I wanted to explore how people and news work together in a country that restricts free speech. Even more, I wanted to gain some answers for myself about the world of Journalism.

On my first day working with the Shanghaiist, I didn’t know what to expect. Before coming to China, I had expected that my job would involve shadowing one of the superior editors, learning about the process of creating and publishing an article, and maybe eventually getting to write an article of my own. But when I finally found the Shanghaiist office, my boss assigned me a project almost immediately.

I realized that I was going to be doing everything: researching the article topic, writing the article, finding and editing pictures, adding citations, and even coding with html to perfect the article’s appearance on the Shanghaiist website.

My first story was about the Bollywood wrestling film, Dangal, and its immense popularity in China. Like many of the articles I would write, this one required intensive background research, since I didn’t know what the film was about, never mind the story of its success. In order to write a knowledgeable and accurate piece, I had to look at many different articles, movie descriptions, and reviews before I could form my own perception.

I began to realize that is where journalism in all countries, but especially in China, gets complicated. With a story like Dangal, it was easy to get to the truth. While I still had to check to make sure all of my sources were reliable, it’s much harder to manipulate the truth when dealing with something as straightforward and non-political as a popular movie.

This wasn’t the case with other articles. Before I arrived to work at the Shanghaiist, I expected to be limited in what I could write about online. Instead, I found that I had the freedom to write about any topic and could even choose my own pieces, since independent online newspapers like the Shanghaiist are not controlled by government regulations.

I quickly learned the names of independent, English language news sites like ours that gave credible information and learned to treat government news agencies like Xinhua and People’s Daily with a measure of skepticism.

On the 28th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, I wrote a story about the Taiwanese president’s call for China to acknowledge the massacre, which they have ignored for decades. This was one of my more sensitive topics, especially since the details of the Tiananmen Square massacre are not taught in Chinese schools or addressed by the government.

Of course, the government-controlled media didn’t say anything about this story, so I used information from unregulated Chinese sites and Taiwanese newspapers. The story was published that day and received several angry comments calling me a communist, among other things. And although the Shanghaiist caters mostly to English-speaking readers, I was amazed that something like that story could be accessed — online, unblocked, and for free — by the Chinese public. The Shanghaiist and newspapers like it represent significant steps forward for free speech in China.

Over the course of my internship, I wrote many articles like that one, some more controversial than others. I learned the dangers of letting personal bias creep into journalistic writing and the difficulties of finding truth among a host of sources with their own individual biases. Most of all, I learned that it is the responsibility of the individual to learn how to locate the truth for themselves, whether journalist or reader. It’s one lesson Americans can learn from China.