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.

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

  1. D

    But I think the “jumping to conclusions” is a product of China’s lack of transparency and lack of access for journalists to report on stories. If anyone complains about poor reporting in China (which the Chinese government often faults Western media of doing), I first go back to the fact that finding and reporting on real issues in China is tremendously difficult because the Chinese government at local, provincial, and national levels make life very difficult for journalists.

    And then there are the economic constraints the Western media place upon themselves when reporting in China — most bureaus have downsized and left reporters stringing [sic] along with bare support to cover an entire country. To some extent, it is the media’s own fault for not having resources to cover these topics.

    There is of course no excuse for reporting without reliable first-person sources, but on the flip side many reports from China MUST be written and delivered to consumers either with anonymous sources or from non-attributable sources. Part of it is cultural (how many times on a daily CCTV newscast do they interview a man on the street and give him the anonymous moniker of “city dweller” or “peasant”) and part of it is out of security for both the reporter/writer and the source. Even responses on blogs (like yours) are semi-anonymous, eh?

    So I strongly disagree that named sources are critical when writing in China. Would they be better? Yes, definitely. Are they critical? No. Even Chinese journos/writers, themselves, have multiple aliases when writing online or offline for various media (part of it is for economic reasons, part of it is for branding, and part of it is for security).

    At it’s worst, this report from the NGO is false, wrong, and totally incorrect. Could this be all false? Maybe. But that NGO also has a decent record of finding and reporting on real issues in China. The NY Times and Fox News in the USA both have had credibility problems in the past (wow, who would have thought of placing those 2 institutions on the same level), so nobody of course is given a free ticket on this.

    But I think those of us who watch China machinations are perhaps tired of Foxconn stories. So when something like this happens, our human reaction is to poo-poo it to the corner. Do we give the same relevance today to horrible stories from Darfur that we gave 5 years ago? No, because we are numb to those stories in the same way we are numb and tired of Foxconn stories.

    So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    1. Stan Post author

      BI is a big clearinghouse of stuff that runs a bit of everything, both good and bad. Kind of like Huffington Post or other ginormous portals. So no, I’m not too worried about it for that reason. Of course, I don’t really see myself as a well-known name or anything (i.e., nothing to damage).

        1. Stan Post author

          Not much. Can’t see how HuffPost is ever going to make any money. On the other hand, no one is paying for content these days, so what’s the answer? I have no idea. I’m also frustrated that no one pays writers much, if anything, anymore. The whole thing is depressing.

          1. D

            We’re just going through a short period of downtime right now. New media brands are forming, and some of the old ones will stay and morph. Those BI and HuffPo models are good because they are created for the Internet medium: having curated/aggregated content was the promise we had in “bots” back in 1997-2000, and they have now become so much a part of our online lives we do not realize it anymore. Businesses will shuffle through this period and we’ll start seeing the light in 5-10 years.

  2. D

    Some people are happy to paint Tom Sawyer’s fence.

    It’s a value judgement. Many people are happy to post on HuffPo/BI because they value notoriety, fame, added exposure, or the like. And they are happy with that alone without any additional compensation. (A tangential question: would someone rather be a rich nobody or a poor somebody?)

    But some can then morph that fame into something else. If I was in your position, I would appreciate the added exposure of BI because I would maybe be able to transform that into money via consulting gigs, talking gigs, etc. (Un)fortunately, we humans subconsciously believe “He blogs; therefore he is expert” (Stan, in your case you both blog and are an expert) so many people can transform the free exposure on HuffPo/BI into paid gigs elsewhere.

    No writer would be happy with the crass economic argument: your post on BI is worth pennies. It probably has (let’s be very liberal) 30,000 pageviews in a month. And let’s be very liberal and say 0.5% of the people (let’s assume liberal 1:1 pageview-to-person) click on the ads that go for USD1.00/PPC (again, very liberal). The base (with no additional variables) gross value of your article was USD150.00. That’s not bad, but that is also very liberal and without many, many variables.

    If using a CPM model instead at a generous USD5.00/mille, the gross value one could think of (mind you, there are MANY ways to value that article) could also be USD150.00.

    So then let’s be realistic and cut it in half to USD75.00 gross value. Then let’s place all the costs on top of that (i.e. potential sales commission to get the advertiser; technology costs like bandwidth/server; people cost like technicians, secretaries, managers, floor cleaners; taxes; etc.) and we should shave off about USD65.00. You are left with a value for your great article at USD10.00. By the time the money is transferred, you lose some transfer fees, and then you pay tax on that, your article nets you about USD3.00-5.00. That’s enough to pay for a double-tall hazelnut latte at Starbucks. You did all that work for a latte, congratulations.

    So then the question is should HuffPo/BI pay writers these micro-payments in exchange for writing? Sure, they could do that and maybe it is not a bad idea. But then think about how the legal shift of liabilities shifts to HuffPo, how they now maybe need to focus on quality — after all, this is not just syndicated stuff anymore, but actual content from their “stringers” like you. A nd now their costs rise because they now need to have an entire new department of staff dealing with people like you on a more human level — they need writer support people plus billing people plus… list goes on.

    Does HuffPo have the money, power, and will to swing this? Maybe not at this very moment. But it would be possible with executives focused on a more Demand Media type of business model.

    This argument and discussion could easily go in lots of directions and there are valid POVs on both sides. What about the readers though? They seem to visit the BI/HuffPo content.