New Editorial Policy: Media Reports on Foxconn Not to be Trusted

October 8, 2012

It’s Monday, the long holiday is over, I have a three-hour lecture later today, and I’m feeling slightly grumpy. Why? Instead of enjoying my morning coffee (still decaf, naysayers!) and tweaking Powerpoint slides about the history of China trade and FDI, I’m sitting here trying to figure out what exactly went on at a Foxconn factory a few days ago, and wondering why this keeps happening.

Right before the holiday, it was yet another Foxconn story, with weird media accounts of a riot over working conditions. That story seems to have run its course, although I never really felt like we were given the full story of a conflict there between workers and security guards. What we do know in that case was that the initial media reports suggesting that thousands of workers were running amok (that’s the mental image I got, anyway) were a bit premature.

And then a few days ago, we get yet another account of a Foxconn factory Zhengzhou with a labor problem. This time, we were told, several thousand workers went on strike and stopped production. China Labor Watch, a rights advocacy organization, broke the news and provided quotes for initial media reports, including in particular a speedy Reuters version of events.

Whether CLW was right or wrong with its facts, I found it odd at the time that stories were being written with no named sources besides an advocacy group with an obvious bias. Indeed, I noted at the time on Twitter that some of this stuff sounded more like a CLW press release than actual reporting.

Foxconn came out later with a terse statement that said there was no work stoppage. I don’t think too many folks believed the attempt at “Nothing to see here, move along,” but that’s standard operating procedure, I suppose.

And then we finally got another point of view, this time from an official at the economic zone where the factory was located. In a Xinhua story yesterday, a new narrative, which was somewhat different from both the Foxconn and CLW versions, emerged:

A Foxconn plant in Central China’s Henan province has resumed production following a dispute between workers and the plant over stricter quality inspections for the iPhone 5, authorities said Saturday.

A spokesman from the management committee of the Xinzheng Comprehensive Bonded Area in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou, where the plant is located, said production resumed one hour after a conflict occurred between workers and quality inspectors.

More than 100 quality inspectors refused to go to work at 7 am Friday after one of the inspectors was allegedly assaulted by the workers, who have been dissatisfied with the new inspection standards.

Who to believe? You’re on your own with that decision. For me, though, one thing is clear: don’t trust anything written immediately following any sort of labor disturbance, particularly one involving Foxconn; it’s bound to be incomplete. And if the word “iPhone” is in the article, it’s automatically less credible, at least in terms of comprehensiveness. If it’s the latest iPhone model, in this case the iPhone 5, I’m not even sure the article is worth reading.

Some editors out there seem much too willing to jump on a pre-existing narrative that involves Apple/Foxconn and labor disputes, to the point that whole stories are written before the facts become known. Sourcing entire stories based on accounts told by labor advocacy organizations? That’s acceptable for a one-paragraph wire blurb or a tech blog post, but not a news article several hundred words in length put out by a top news agency.

Adam Minter, who apparently wasn’t all that thrilled either with how all this was reported, has an excellent post at Shanghai Scrap on this topic:

On Friday, China Labor Watch, a New York-based NGO that claims to be “dedicated to promoting workers’ fair redistribution of wealth under globalization,” announced that a “large-scale strike” had shut down a Foxconn factory that manufactures the iPhone 5. The group didn’t cite its sources for the story, but that didn’t stop several major news organizations (the credulous Reuters report was syndicated across multiple platforms) from parroting the press release, often verbatim. It was also picked up by several notable bloggers and commentators, including Henry Blodget, co-founder, CEO, and editor of The Business Insider. Below, a screen grab of Blodget’s Friday afternoon editorial.

Click through to see Adam’s discussion of a suspect photo of “striking workers.” (Full disclosure: China Hearsay is re-posted on Business Insider.)

Which brings me to Policy Change #2: don’t even trust photos.

What to make of all this? The truth, as usual, lies somewhere between the labor version and that of management. But as Philip Elmer-DeWitt at CNN noted, the real news here is that Foxconn continues to have labor problems. Not exactly a sexy headline, but at least it’s a contention that is supportable by facts.

When news breaks and the facts aren’t yet known, maybe a broad conclusion like that is the best we can do. Running with unreliable information with an eye on the clock doesn’t seem to be working all that well.