news literacy

What’s happening in Hong Kong?

The difficult task of verifying news amidst censorship and social media
October 23, 2014

“What kind of Communists are these people?!” exclaimed Jon Stewart on the October 6 episode of The Daily Show, pointing to the orderliness and civility of the mass protests that having been taking place in downtown Hong Kong since late September.

While the segment likely brought awareness to a story that Americans might not be inclined to follow (considering how much big, competing news was occurring at the same time) it’s noteworthy that Stewart uses “Hong Kong” and “China” interchangeably in the segment. And to fuse the two together for the sake of characterization, even in jest, is especially misleading considering that the reason for the protests in the first place is to assert the difference between Hong Kong and China’s forms of governance.

Following a story like this one and knowing which sources are trustworthy is especially difficult for journalists and news consumers outside of Hong Kong, for several reasons, including decreasing numbers of regional experts in newsrooms, China’s attempts to censor any news coming out about the protests, local sources’ reluctance to identify themselves in news stories, and the fact that much of the movement’s communication is happening on social media (and even Evernote!). But thanks to the far-reaching effects of news literacy training that originated in the United States, verification efforts exist and shed important light on why news literacy is important to understand, and how it has impacted coverage of the protests.

“It’s a very complicated story,” says Rick Hornik of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, who covered the region for many years. “If you really want to understand what’s going on, you have to follow trusted people.” Following the story from the US, largely on Twitter, he immediately noticed how many people in his feed were retweeting information about the protests that they clearly hadn’t read before sharing. He unfollowed them. Even coverage from generally trusted news sources like The New York Times is rampant with assertion and speculation, rather than verified information. This story from October 17, for example, reads: “According to interviews with six current and former Hong Kong and Chinese government officials, as well as a range of experts, it is China’s national leaders, more than Hong Kong’s, who have been directing the broad strokes of the response to the crisis.” The officials spoke on conditions of anonymity, and experts quotes largely conveyed general assertions about Beijing’s role.

“If you could just teach people to look at the sources in a story quickly, that would go pretty far to develop critical consumers of information,” says Hornik. “The worth of a story should be based on the people being interviewed for it.”

This strategy, part of Stony Brook’s core news literacy lesson on verification, is something that Hornik took to University of Hong Kong* as a visiting lecturer back in 2012, in collaboration with HKU journalism professor Dr. Masato Kajimoto, who subsequently included news literacy curriculum in his principles of journalism class that most first-year undergraduate journalism students take.

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One of these students was Gloria Cheung, now a senior at HKU, who, on September 28, set up a makeshift newsroom in the common room of her dorm. Along with over a dozen other students, she began to verify user-generated content coming out of the protests, much the way Storyful does.

“The goal for our Facebook page is to try to provide accurate information,” Cheung says. “We try to double check things before we publish it. We’re not trying to play an educational role. We are just trying to be a new source … [for] information about the protest. So it might be useful for protesters at the scene, or anyone who is trying to follow the movement.”

The page’s following is small, considering how young it is and that much of the content is in Chinese, but has followers from the US, UK, Australia, and Taiwan, as well as in Hong Kong.

An English-language effort that’s similar and also involves journalism students from HKU is a Reddit feed that has both a confirmed and unconfirmed stream of user-generated content and updates out of the protest. The submission guide encourages posting accurate, unbiased information, but considering the anonymous nature of Reddit, identifying information is prohibited.

For foreign journalists trying to navigate all this information, keeping up with the nuances of the movement and assessing what’s true is difficult. “So much of the pro-democracy movement has been happening online,” Quartz reporter Lily Kuo writes in an email. “If you walk around the protests, you’ll notice how many signs include a Facebook or WeChat or WhatsApp profile for you to follow. Almost all the protestors I’ve spoken to get their news from Facebook, and that’s where they circulate and comment on news related to the protests.”

An especially helpful tool, she continues, has been a WhatsApp channel of both journalists and protesters, which she uses to get contacts, keep up with different areas of the protests where members are stationed, and ask questions.

But, as Cheung points out, these types of channels are infiltrated by unknown people, presumably anti-protest or from the government, who impersonate protest leaders and circulate images and messages to scare protesters. “And people are sharing this information frantically, because they are so worried that the police or government are really causing large-scale casualties around downtown Hong Kong,” she says.

Add journalists listening in on these same channels to the mix.

“Unless they are personally very interested in the minute-by-minute update of key developments,” Kajimoto writes in an email, “my advice [to people following the story abroad] would be to take it slow and wait for journalists to sift through a myriad of information to report verified facts.”

Being wary of explanatory pieces is just as important. “There have been almost as many opinion pieces and ‘explanatory’ features (i.e.: reports with lots of assertions by the quoted sources as well as the journalists themselves) as straightforward news reports since day one,” warns Kajimoto. “Discerning news consumers should know the difference between verification journalism and opinion journalism. The two serve different purposes. But it is easy to mix them when the audience is not familiar with the subject matter… I would tell them to take into account that their lack of local knowledge (language, history, culture, etc) might get in the way when trying to evaluate the news coverage.”

When instilling fear in protesters by infiltrating social channels with false reports is a strategy, possibly of the same officials who aren’t able to identify themselves or make anything more than general statements to the press, following a story like this one requires reading very closely and widely. This is what experts following the situation in Hong Kong suggest–and this is why news literacy advocates have been teaching news consumers not only journalistic skills, but frameworks to analyze news stories for potential bias and nuance.

Funding for this coverage is provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

*The name of the university has been corrected.

Jihii Jolly is a freelance journalist and video producer in New York City