How do journalists keep their objectivity while covering the Hong Kong protests?


As the demonstrations continue and the political divide widens, it's especially important for reporters to remain neutral

Rhea Mogul |

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The Hong Kong protests have now entered their 22nd week, and as clashes between police and protesters become more frequent, the media has at times been caught in the middle. Some reporters on the front lines have been heckled and even physically attacked as they try to cover events. Meanwhile, their coverage been criticised by both pro and anti-government parties as being unbalanced.

As the political divide widens, reporters on the ground have the difficult task of reporting the things they see or hear objectively. That means that their stories must be completely factual and separate from their own opinions. But can reporters remain objective when they have become part of the ongoing story?

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We spoke to three Young Post reporters who have covered the protests, as well as former war correspondent, Keith Richburg, who is also the Director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, to learn how they manage to remain objective when reporting the news.

“It is the journalists’ job to be completely fair and factual,” says Richburg. “It’s important to get all sides of the story to allow the reader to understand the situation, and make up their own mind.”

This is a rule Young Post reporter, Kelly Ho, makes sure to follow, even though it isn’t always easy.

The protests have left the city extremely divided between anti-government and pro-establishment camps.
Photo: SCMP / Sam Tsang

“I speak to people from both sides, which can be challenging,” she says. “Some people do not feel comfortable speaking to us or might be rude, but we have to remain professional and ask our questions politely and patiently.”

Richburg says that in the social media age, where news stories can be shared instantly over Twitter, Facebook and Telegram, it’s more important than ever that journalists report nothing but the facts.

Fellow reporter Joanne Ma says fact checking is a crucial part of writing a new story.

“I only report things that I am 100 per cent sure of,” she says. “A lot of misunderstandings can arise if people only hear part of the story; the truth can get twisted around.”

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“One example of this happening was on October 6, when a taxi driver was beaten up by pro-democracy protesters in Sham Shui Po after he was seen ploughing his vehicle into the crowd, injuring at least one woman,” says Ma, explaining that the driver was attacked even though it was unclear whether his actions were deliberate. 

Reporter Nicola Chan agrees: “When we’re unsure of what’s happened, it is important to check with multiple sources – such as eyewitnesses – to make sure the information is accurate and unbiased.”

Richburg adds that language is “vitally important”, and reporters must use “neutral words only.”

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“We have to just tell the people what happened. We all might have our own passions, but those must be kept in a lockbox,” he says. “For example, I wouldn’t use the term ‘radical protesters’ or ‘extremists’ because what makes them radical and extremist? Instead, solely report the facts with the term ‘black-clad protesters’.”

Richburg says this allows the reader to make up their own mind about how they perceive the situation. He says a good rule of thumb is to give clear, matter-of-fact descriptions of what happened, and avoid using adjectives that might make people angry or emotional.

“It’s difficult, because we are all human beings, and it’s hard for reporters from Hong Kong because this is their home,” says Richburg. “But at the end of the day, maintaining objectivity is absolutely crucial as a journalist.”

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