"Media ethics draws a line between a professional journalist and a citizen journalist. A news report must be accurate, fair, unbiased and with all the facts checked beforehand. This is the tenet that the media and professional journalists follow strictly, so as to ensure that news stories are credible and able to provide a relatively full picture to the public for understanding the truth." Professor Chan King Cheung said this when he highlighted the importance of media ethics. Last year, the School of Communication of HKBU launched a search for the right candidate for Hong Kong’s first endowed professorship in media ethics. As a veteran in the news industry and having professional expertise and extensive experience in both printed and online media, Professor Chan is obviously the best choice. He assumed office this year.
Social media bringing a revolution to the industry
Courses in media ethics are usually compulsory in the media and communication schools of universities worldwide. As pointed out by Professor Chan, like many professionals such as lawyers and doctors, journalists have their code of conduct, one that is critical to the credibility of the press. Reporters must stick to these principles at all times when doing their job. "The rise of the internet and social media in the past 20 years has in fact made the industry and the academia think about, reflect on and study the challenges brought about by these new elements." The first challenge, according to Professor Chan, is that social media was originally created for personal networking. It was not designed to serve as a channel for mass communication and information dissemination. "Nonetheless, the fact is social media has inevitably become an important form of mass media, with which people with similar views are drawn closer together, but at the same time they have fewer opportunities to listen to opposite voices. If people keep receiving information in this way, will they eventually be unwilling to listen to different views? Will the rift in our society become more serious?” A recent study in the United States shows that interviewees are less able to answer questions on current affairs correctly if they read the news mainly in social media. In other words, it is more likely that one’s world will be much narrower if he or she always looks to social media for news and information.
The other challenge is that news reporting is no longer monopolised by the news industry. With the widespread use of smartphones, everyone has become a citizen journalist and can disseminate information through a variety of social media platforms. In addition, the advancement of technology has made it much easier to develop one’s own digital channel and to conduct livestreaming. As a result, the news industry has been turned upside down. "Digital media such as online news channels, news blogs, Instagram and social media have brought a genuine revolution and reshaped the industry’s landscape thoroughly. We know that online media mainly focuses on immediacy and therefore fact-checking may not be comprehensive or even impossible. If, unfortunately, the news is made up and spread fast, the news industry and the whole of society have to pay a cost." Take an example from Western society: Professor Chan said that if a candidate standing in an election disseminates fake news in the online world to defame his or her political rival, voters’ decision may change and lead to a completely different result. It can be seen that division and disagreement have become increasingly common in the West, and the public’s trust in the media is falling due to the polarisation of political views. To make matters worse, social media is flooded with passages created by content farms, causing more and more confusion for the audience. "Is that what we want for our society?"
As the Raymond R. Wong Endowed Professor in Media Ethics, Professor Chan plays a significant role in promoting exchange in terms of media ethics. On the one hand, he teaches a course on Communication, Ethics and Law that will analyse real-life cases with students. On the other hand, he will embark on fostering more dialogues and reflections on media ethics among practitioners in Hong Kong and neighbouring regions, making use of his own experience and network accumulated over the past four decades as well as the prominent role played by HKBU’s Department of Journalism.
A practical veteran in the news industry
A highly respected figure in the industry, Professor Chan is known for his outstanding work at the Hong Kong Economic Journal (HKEJ). He joined HKEJ as a reporter, was promoted to Chief Editor in 2003 and became Executive Director and Deputy Publisher in 2010. Later, he served as President of EJ Digital. His editorials and commentaries on current affairs were always unique and incisive. When the then Chief Executive, Tung Chee Hwa, was about to resign in 2005, HKEJ secured a scoop by breaking the news to the city before the HKSAR government made an official announcement. This news story was one of Professor Chan’s widely acclaimed achievements as a journalist. HKEJ has been highly recognised by its counterparts, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s when Professor Chan was the newspaper’s Chief Editor. The newspaper’s stories are always clear and concise, while the analysis is genuinely comprehensive and discerning.
Professor Chan said that he joined the news industry in the 1980s. "At that time, the governments of the United Kingdom and China were negotiating over Hong Kong and the territory’s future was full of uncertainties. You could feel that something important was going to happen and you wanted to be there. I couldn’t think of any job other than being a journalist that could help me participate in it!" Since then, Professor Chan has witnessed a variety of important changes in Hong Kong, including the drafting of the Basic Law, the development of the political system, the handover, and the outbreak of SARS. "Every two or three years Hong Kong faces a new wave of challenges. We journalists are at the forefront and watching these historic moments happen. I must say that there is a sense of mission that makes me keep going." In Hong Kong, many commentators choose to publish their critiques or analysis using a pen name. But this is definitely not Professor Chan’s style. "I believe that a commentator has to be accountable to the readers so is obliged to let them know who you are. You will then think twice before you start writing. The current problem in social media is that people can give their comments anonymously and are thus not responsible for what they have said."
Passing knowledge on to the next generation
Wearing a variety of hats, Professor Chan is a busy person. He is a radio and television programme host as well as a newspaper columnist, providing a wealth of penetrating views and discerning commentaries. He has also taken a number of leadership roles in the cultural and communication field. Having a wide spectrum of practical experience in the industry, Professor Chan is indeed an exceptional and all-round media veteran. More importantly, he is passionate about passing on his know-how to the next generation at local tertiary institutions. "Teaching is a happy thing to me. Sometimes you may receive an unexpected award if some of your students have become a core member of a news agency." Professor Chan began to give lessons at HKBU this year, but unfortunately classes remain online due to the fifth wave of the pandemic. To increase his understanding of the students in order to provide better support, Professor Chan arranged one-on-one online meetings with them.
Recent years have seen tremendous changes in the news industry. A number of news organisations have changed hands and gone through reorganisation. Front-line journalists have faced obstructions and even assaults when gathering news on site. Several executive-level journalists have been arrested. Online media outlets have been closed down one by one. Newspapers’ circulation as well as advertising revenue have fallen, not to mention the impact of the pandemic. Professor Chan admitted that the news industry is now in a grave situation. "The industry is under extreme pressure no matter whether it is in a legal, political or operational aspect. None of us in the field can deny this."
Laying a foundation of media ethics in the news industry
Against this backdrop, Professor Raymond R. Wong, the Godfather of Hong Kong journalism, made a generous donation of HK$50 million to HKBU in 2020 to establish the Dorothy Shen Wong Memorial Fund. The Fund supports the strategic development of HKBU’s School of Communication as well as the journalism education it provides. This is the biggest single gift the School of Communication has ever received. It not only was a timely source of encouragement to the industry, but also created concrete benefits to current practitioners or journalists-to-be. In addition to the establishment of the Endowed Professorship in Media Ethics, the Fund supports the launch of the HKBU Professional Journalism Fellowship, which offers practising journalists an opportunity to further their studies at HKBU. Signature events such as international summits, distinguished lecture series and master classes are to be held to raise standards in the industry. Professor Chan expressed his gratitude to Professor Wong for establishing this endowed Professorship. He used to work with Professor Wong when he was appointed by the HKSAR Government as a member of the Committee on Review of Public Service Broadcasting, which was chaired by Professor Wong. In his eyes, Professor Wong is a remarkable leader. "He is undoubtedly a legendary figure in the industry, being highly committed to his career in journalism for several decades. His professionalism, his passion for his work and journalism education as well as his contributions to the industry deserve our greatest respect."
"Although the times have changed, challenges always come with opportunities." Professor Chan said it is very encouraging to see that students still consider joining the industry after graduation. "Journalists have the mission of safeguarding the public’s right to know and monitoring the government's policy implementation. If young people have such an aspiration, they will find the news industry very attractive and irresistible." Moreover, due to their unique job nature, journalists can meet political figures, business leaders, community leaders, people from all walks of life. As journalism students in general have good presentation and communication skills, their future is still promising even if they switch to other industries. Professor Chan encourages students to listen to their heart and pursue their dream, as this is the only way to succeed. "I have met many different people in my life. I discover that as long as a person focuses on doing one thing persistently and asks the best from himself or herself, he or she will never lose."
Upholding the spirit of seeking truth
"Truth is virtue" is the motto of HKBU’s School of Communication. Truth shall be approached through responsible, effective and balanced communication of accurate facts. According to Professor Chan, the most basic skill a journalist student must possess is that of writing. He or she should also be curious about the world and have an inquisitive mind. Leading by example, Professor Chan has in recent years become a Senior Consultant of the Hong Kong Chronicles Institute, demonstrating the spirit of seeking truth in recording Hong Kong’s history. The Hong Kong Chronicles is a comprehensive historical record of local geography, politics, economy, society, culture and people. Professor Chan is the editor of one of the books in the series. "It is crucial for us to learn from the past. The section I am responsible for is about the Reform and Opening-up, which was so influential for both the Mainland and Hong Kong." During the editing process, Professor Chan found that you cannot just base yourself on the news reports of that time or the not-always-reliable memory of the persons involved in the historic events. Your need to find many references from a wide variety of sources. The process of seeking the truth is not easy.
Hiking, listening to music and reading are what Professor Chan likes to do for leisure. He said that one of the good things about joining HKBU is that he can borrow many books from the library. "There are loads of information on the internet that you can get instantly. However, these pieces of information are too fragmented for you to see the full picture or the ins and outs. You just know it but not understand it." A nugget of wisdom from a sophisticated scholar that is worth pondering on by all of us.