An Update on Journalism Ethics in Asia:
Values and Practices as Context for Meaning in Japan, China and Korea

By Tom Brislin
University of Hawaii

Are there professional journalistic values that cut across international and cultural boundaries? Are there core values -- or clusters of values -- so unique to culture that they mitigate against a global professional ethic in journalism? These become key questions as both economic and technological forces change the landscape of international journalism.

In Japan, journalists voluntarily and regularly curtail their truth-telling through the practice of self-censorship -- not from coercion by the government, but by their own press organizations that cover government. In the People's Republic of China, journalists -- like all essential workers -- are in the employ of government and pay homage to the truth, but place a lower value on pursuing with any aggressiveness or perseverance. In Korea, journalists most often recognize truth as the word of government, and identify themselves with the elite ruling forces and identify their role as helping to insure harmony between the rulers and the ruled. Their closeness to government is often measured by the amount of cash in the "white envelopes" they receive from their sources.

Journalistic ethics, values and practices in these powerful political and economic capitals of Asia constitute a worthwhile critical review and study as much of foreign correspondence from these major sites is "reporting on what the local press is reporting on."

Economic limitations in American news organizations have exacerbated the problems of covering a country through its press reports as many have been forced to maintain only part- time bureaus in Beijing and Seoul, with correspondents flown in from full-time bureaus in Tokyo to cover only the most major stories. Limitations in Asian languages can restrict the Western corespondent to relying on interpretations of stories carried in the major newspapers and television networks that were initially gathered with journalistic values and practices that can be equally as "foreign" as the language in which they are printed or broadcast. The access by American and other foreign correspondents to newsmakers and news events can be restricted as well by the journalistic practices and values in the host country from which they are reporting.

The net effect is news reportage that has been framed and filtered by and through the news values and ethical practices of one national and cultural press system and then reframed and filtered by and through the values and ethical practices of the correspondent's press system. Additionally, there are times when the foreign correspondent is bypassed entirely. American news consumers increasingly receive the bulk of their international reporting from non-American reporters as major newspapers, news services and TV networks cut back on their own foreign bureaus and rely more on reports fed by other countries' (or international) news agencies and reporters. CNN has long used the "get the foreign news from foreign reporters" formula, and has surpassed the networks as the authoritative source of international news, as evidenced by such major events as the Gulf War and the Kobe earthquake.

But what is the underlying "authority" of these reports in terms of journalistic values and practices? How do these host-culture values and practices affect the often-competing values and practices of the correspondent? The need for context as a measure of meaning for news reports gains increased importance in international reporting as it must be expanded to include a journalistic context for the reports as well.

This paper addresses some of the issues of professional values and practices as journalistic context in news reporting in Japan, Korea and China. It integrates some previous studies that have focused on the character of journalism and journalists and adds new insights based on in-depth interviews with journalists from the three countries, and with American correspondents based in Tokyo who were charged with covering news throughout East Asia, including Seoul and Beijing. The paper also adds a new study of value hierarchies among Chinese and U.S. journalists as a method of measuring similar and divergent value systems that underlie professional journalism practice.

As a focus for integrating both the qualitative and quantitative data on journalism values and practices in Asia, the professional imperatives of truth-telling and independence will be examined across all three national press systems. Black, Steele and Barney (1995) have identified truth-telling and independence, along with minimizing harm, as the triumvirate of professional values in American Journalism as a guiding force and practical application of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Cooper (1990) collected and analyzed numerous national professional codes of ethics, including those from Japan, China and Korea, to draw some preliminary multinational or universal journalistic values and also arrived at a similar trio: "the quest for truth," "the compulsion for free expression," and "the desire for responsibility" (p. 3). Using truth-telling and independence, then, is not an imposition of Western values as the true, or universal, core of journalism. Each national press system reflects and recognizes similar values -- in name -- in their journalistic quest. It is in the interpretation and application of truth-telling and independence where a richer context can be found for ferreting out meaning to international news reports.

Japan: Structure as Value

The kisha kurabu, or press club, system of news coverage in Japanese journalism has been examined in numerous studies (Susumu, 1972; Lee, 1985; Akhavan-Majid, 1990; Vanden Huevel and Dennis, 1993; Akihito, 1994) The clubs are highly structured organizations of journalists who cover the same "beat" in government or business. There are separate clubs, for example, for the journalists who cover the prime minister, the foreign ministry, the Diet, the Imperial Household, or the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The clubs are organized and governed by the journalists themselves, but in most cases receive generous office space, including utilities, and telephone, fax and computer access at no, or only nominal, charge, from the government or business agency covered.

While Western styles of journalism would see truth emerging from full-disclosure reporting from highly competitive, independent journalists and news agencies trying to "outfact" each other and be first with exclusive stories, the kisha kurabu system effectively strips competitiveness from journalistic practice, reducing both independence of the journalists and the level of truthful disclosure in their reports. Membership in the specific press club is required to gain access to the individual or group covered, including attending press conferences and receiving background press briefings. A member of the foreign ministry press club, for instance, has no access to the prime minister press club, even if the issue under discussion involves foreign policy. A primary condition of membership in a press club is that no journalist will report any information that is not freely available to every other member.

Violation of that condition results in ejection from the club, with a resulting loss of any access to the principal players being covered. Under such self-imposed truth-telling restrictions on reporting, no journalist can report more facts than any other journalist, and certainly could report no "exclusive" story based on individual initiative or enterprise. While in Western journalistic practice "exclusives" would result in a reward for the reporter and a point of pride for the newspaper, in Japanese practice it would produce banishment of the reporter and a serious "loss of face" for the newspaper to be reporting something different than the "competition." Japanese newspapers, in fact, are noted for their sameness, with nearly identical news. Truth as value is effectively measured by the limitation, rather than abundance, of facts. The competition among them comes more from the non-news features they contain, such as serialized novels. (It should be noted that the kisha kurabu are a construction of the newspaper industry. Magazine reporters, considered second-class citizens in the Japanese journalism hierarchy, cannot join. Television reporters have only recently been allowed in because of the cross-ownership between the major Tokyo networks and newspapers.)

The kisha kurabu structure produces, on its face, journalism solely lacking in independence as well. Although the clubs are organized and governed by the journalists, it is still the government and business agencies who make the decisions of what will be news on a particular day. The press club journalists then act essentially as the agents of the government or business agenda. Although the reports are factual or truthful, they often are not complete as they include only the selected truths or "spin" that the newsmakers want to disseminate. The journalists themselves can also be responsible for adding their own spin as, for some, their careers rise and fall with the politicians they cover (Abe, 1995). The journalists who are current members of the prime minister press club, for instance, used to be members of the Diet press club assigned to cover him as a legislator. As the politician's star rises, so does the journalistic currency of the reporters covering him. As he moves into the prime minister's office, the journalists move into the prime minister press club. Those covering the former prime minister move out, often to reassignment at the bottom of the political pool. It is common practice in Japanese political journalism to play "booster" to the politician one is covering, and report on the selected angles that put the subject in the best light -- further distancing the journalist from a Western concept of independence. It is important for the Western observer, including journalists, to note that Japanese political coverage is based on an advocacy, rather than objective, model.

The kisha kurabu structure emphasizes several underlying fundamental values of Japanese society: subjugation of the individual to the group; and presentation styles (including news and information) that promote harmony, rather than confrontation, criticism or dissent. Although a surface analysis would present dim prospects for a "full disclosure" and independent style of journalism -- and so a fully informed society -- journalistic values and practices are not completely limited by the kisha kurabu. As Japanese sociologist Takeshi Ishida (1984) points out, every omote, or formal surface area of a conflict, always has its ura, or background, informal area, where resolution is more likely to be found.

In addition to television and newspaper cross-ownership, each major newspaper in Tokyo also owns a subsidiary news magazine. The exclusion of the magazine reporters from the press clubs by their own newspaper owners is intentional. The magazine journalists are allowed a freer -- and often a more sensationalistic -- rein (Kaplan, 1995). Although they do not have access to the press conferences and background briefings, their newspaper counterparts will privately pass along not only the official agendas discussed, but also the rumors and innuendoes circulating in the government or business agency. The magazine will report on these more sensational and salacious stories that the newspaper would never deign to. But once reported in the magazine, the newspaper is free to run stories on the furor created by the magazine reporting, often repeating the bulk of the magazine stories. Of course, all of the newspapers will run the story at the same time, regardless of which newspaper's subsidiary magazine ran the original story, because the press club journalists have agreed how and when to pursue the story so all will have it at the same time. The individual newspapers can print sensational stories without a loss of face -- and without violating any press club conditions.

The magazine journalists, meanwhile, remain "second class" for originating such stories, even though it is part of a ritual dance between newspaper and magazine, among newspapers through their press club journalists, and between the press clubs and government or business agencies they cover.

American correspondents watch the ritual with some amusement, and sometimes find themselves a part of it (Reid, 1995). Press club journalists who find an embargo placed on what would be an important story will sometimes leak the information to a reporter from an "elite" U.S. newspaper, such as the New York Times or Washington Post. The press clubs can then report on the story after it has been printed in one of these major American news journals. The government itself will sometimes give "exclusives" to the U.S. correspondents knowing that it will cycle back to the press clubs and Japanese newspapers with added emphasis for having appeared in an "elite" U.S. newspaper.

The kisha kurabu have been historically closed to foreign journalists. Although some American news agencies have exerted great pressures to be admitted, most watch from the sidelines, preferring not to subscribe to the restrictive rules (Sato, 1993; Addison, 1995). Knowing the ritual flow of information, however, is essential to placing it in a meaningful context. As most Japanese reporting never directly names or quotes a source, American and other correspondents need to not only "read between the lines," but also to "follow the lines" of the story's origin, diffusion, and at times republication, to weigh its validity and reliability.

Japanese journalists occasionally grumble at American reporters' freer access to Japanese newsmakers, something Japanese news bureaus in Washington, D.C. don't get from U.S. officials. There is also envy of American journalists' exemption from making omiyage- style payments to news sources, a common and long tradition in Japan (Reid, 1995). U.S. journalism is expressly wary of making payments for news because of fears of exaggerating the truth by sources interested in selling the most appealing story to the highest bidder. In Japanese journalism, however, these small payments, sometimes in the form of gifts such as duty-free liquor, are seen as maintaining balance and harmony in an exchange of value. It makes a fascinating paradox that in the individualist U.S. press system, information is expected to be freely given for greater social value. In collectivist Japan, however, release of information is individually rewarded through what is called "red envelope" journalism, for the traditional color of the envelope that contains the reward.

Korea: Purification - an Emerging Ethic

Traveling east from Tokyo to Seoul, the color and direction of "envelope journalism" change. Ch'ongi, or "white envelope journalism" -- an institutionalized payoff system for journalists -- is one of several concerns by Korean journalists who want to reform what has finally become an independent press system, but one populated by journalists who cling to journalistic values and practices of a controlled and cozy press. Ethical reform in the Korean press is called "purification," and is perhaps best represented by Pyo Wan-soo (1996), editorial writer for The Kyung Hyang Shin Mun (Daily News) in Seoul. Pyo is a tireless crusader for human rights and press reform. His commitment to both is an outgrowth of the year he spent in prison for criticizing the policies of then-president Chun Doo-hwan, and the following eight years when he was not allowed to work in any journalism job.

The Korean press has only recently achieved a Western-style independence as the result of a number of government reforms, including free elections. Throughout its twentieth century history, the Korean press has been controlled by outside forces (the Japanese in the first half of the century and American military rule through the 50s) and various military strongarm dictators. Ownership of newspapers and the practice of journalism was restricted through licensing (Hahn, 1978; Kang, 1991). Losing one's license for independent, full- disclosure reporting was the least of worries for journalists such as Pyo, who also suffered brutalizing incarceration.

Pyo and other "dissident" journalists returned to the practice in 1988 when the government wanted to put on its best face and counter claims of human rights violations to an international community for the Seoul Olympics. During this subsequent career climb, Pyo has been openly critical of what he terms "collaborationist" journalists who supported the regimes of Chun and Roh Tae-woo, and who still engage in the journalistically corrupt practices of that era that limit independent reporting and truthful disclosure.

Pyo agrees with journalist and East-West Center analyst David Halvorsen (1992) who summarized those practices as: "Old customs of accepting gifts, the fellowship of the press clubs (adopted from the Japanese), the writing from the heart instead of from the facts, and the role of being the consort rather than the watchdog of authority" (p. 3). Pyo and other Korean journalists in the purification movement add to the list:

The ch'onji "flattery money" remains pervasive, say these journalists, despite new ethics codes repudiating it. Halvorsen notes it is so institutionalized that a reporter being assigned to a desk position in the newsroom receives a salary adjustment to offset his loss of ch'onji. The acceptance of "flattery money," however, is seen as less than a bribe by many Korean journalists, who see themselves not as representatives of the people, but as of the same class and stature as, and thus part of the ruling leadership of, the government. As in Japan, Korean journalists and politicians are drawn from the same few, elite universities with already formed social networks. The press club system, instituted during the Japanese occupation, is a natural extension of these fellowships. The ch'onji reflects more an award of recognition of supporting this elite ruling order than a payoff to an outsider to promote, or keep quiet about, it. The relatively open door from journalism into politics shows how strong the fellowship is.

Pyo and a younger cadre of journalists are trying to reposition the profession as an extension of the populace, rather than of the ruling elite. Other practices that the reform- minded "self-purification" journalists are trying to bury include refining or even making up quotes for government officials -- and sometimes making up the anonymous officials themselves -- by sympathetic journalists. Western correspondents and news consumers need to realize that what appears to be "on the record" factual disclosure about government or by government sources may actually be an idealized version of an event or quote provided by an advocate, not adversarial, reporter.

The "purification" journalists' desires for an essential shift from a consort, or government lap-dog, to a watchdog of government encounters much resistance from older journalists not only because of their relative comfort in the status-quo, but also because there is no model for a "watchdog" function in a Confucian-based value system of piety, obedience and conformity. Pyo admits the quest for an independent Korean journalism is a worthy -- but uphill struggle.

China: A Hierarchy of Values

The ethical code for journalists in the People's Republic of China dares them to "stand up for the truth." But it also compels them to be loyal to the Communist Party and government, institutional forces that limit truthful disclosure and forgo independence (Keguang, 1989). How do Chinese journalists balance these and other apparently conflicting values? How do truth-telling, independence and unwavering loyalty fit into a hierarchy of values of the professional journalist? A very preliminary and ongoing study (Brislin, 1996) reports on the attempts to develop a methodology for measuring similarities and differences in "value hierarchies" - the relative valuing of professional values - between journalists of different nationalities and cultures -- in this case between and among Chinese and U.S. journalists.

This preliminary tilling of what is hoped to be fertile soil for international communication research, used a limited sample. The journalists from the People's Republic of China were 10 participants in the Parvin Fellowship Program/Freedom Forum Journalism Studies Program that brings journalists from such newsrooms as China Daily, Xinhua News Agency, People's Daily, and Guangjhou Television, to study for a year at the University of Hawaii. The U.S. journalists were newsroom staffers of the morning Honolulu Advertiser (circ. 110,000). The sample of American journalists was matched for age, gender and experience with the Chinese journalists. (As an interesting footnote, as this study is undertaken in Hawaii, many of the U.S. journalists are of Asian heritage and all have been exposed to some degree to different cultural value systems.)

Each group of 10 journalists was given a list of 12 value terms to rank-order. The value terms were taken from Chinese and U.S. ethical codes. A 10-point code for Chinese journalists to follow, for instance, includes such imperatives as: "Daring to stand up for the truth;" "Being modest, prudent ...." and "never seeking personal fame or material gains ...;" "Being loyal to the country and communism and faithfully propagating and carrying out the Party's Principles and Policies;" and "Persevering in investigation and study" (Keguang 1989, 194). From these imperatives the value terms Courage, Humility, Loyalty and Perseverance were drawn. The Society for Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics (1996) and its Doing Ethics: A Handbook With Case Studies (Black, Barney & Steele, 1993), list as important in a journalist's portfolio of values: Accuracy, Compassion, Completeness, Fairness, Independence, Objectivity. Two additional journalistic characteristics were added to the list, Aggressiveness and Inquisitiveness as what would appear to be opposing value terms to Humility and Loyalty from the Chinese code.

One research question this study seeks to develop was whether value terms such as Humility and Loyalty indeed reflected a journalistic value unique to one group - the Chinese. This might be demonstrated by, for instance, the Chinese journalists ranking Humility and Loyalty higher than Aggressiveness and Inquisitiveness, and U.S. journalists showing a reverse rank order. Some value terms, of course, were common to both codes. The Chinese code, for example, calls for "Truthfully and comprehensively reporting news events" (Keguang 1989, 194). This study also sought to measure whether common value terms, such as Accuracy and Completeness, were held in similar places in a value hierarchy, as reflected in the rankings. The group rankings were analyzed using Kendall's Coefficient of Concordance to measure consistency within groups. A t-test was applied to the comparative mean rankings of each value term to measure differences between the groups. The value terms were presented to each group of journalists in alphabetic order. The mean ranks for each group were:

Value Hierarchies -- U.S. & Chinese Journalists

Value TermMean Rank U.S.Mean Rank Chinesep
Aggressiveness 6.4 8.6 >.1
Compassion 6.4 8.3 ns
Completeness 6.9 5.8 ns
Courage 6.7 7.05 ns
Fairness 3.3 3.4 ns
Humility 10.8 10.6 ns
Independence 7.0 5.75 ns
Inquisitiveness 5.4 8.2 >.05
Loyalty 11.5 6.1 >.01
Objectivity 5.8 3.3 >.05
Perseverence 6.4 9.1 >.05
Kendall's Tau .54 .57

The concordance coefficients (.54 and .57) show a similar level of agreement within each group on the relative rankings of the value terms. The t-tests demonstrate significant differences between the groups on the relative rankings of Inquisitiveness, Loyalty, Objectivity and Perseverance. The U.S. journalists considered Inquisitiveness higher in the value hierarchy; the Chinese journalists Loyalty. Interestingly, the Chinese ranked Objectivity higher than the U.S. journalists, although that is a linchpin of American journalism; and the U.S. journalists gave more weight to Perseverance than the Chinese, although that quality is specifically called for in the Chinese code. Closely approaching significance was the difference in rankings on the value of Aggressiveness, with the U.S. journalists ranking it higher. Both groups ranked Humility at or near the bottom of the value hierarchy; Accuracy, Fairness and Objectivity at the top and Courage in the middle.

The results reinforce Cooper's (1990, 3) contention that "the quest for truth," "the desire for responsibility," and "the compulsion for free expression" form a triumvirate of global or universal values in journalism. Accuracy, Completeness, Fairness, Compassion and Independence were similarly ranked by both groups.

Some questions could be raised, however, about the extent to which Chinese reporters will exert themselves to seek out and report the truth as their Loyalty is linked with a lesser valuing of inquisitiveness, aggressiveness and perseverance. This finding tracks Yu's (1995) analysis of critical reporting in China. Indeed, several Parvin participants agreed with the comment of one: "We value Independence because we want more of it and don't value Humility because too much (of it) is expected of us."

No far-reaching implications can be drawn from a study of such a small sample. But it does suggest that an expanded study, with a larger and more widespread sample, could measure important differences and chart similarities among journalists of different nations and cultures. Kendall's coefficient is a simple and useful statistic for the task. A better set of value terms could most likely be drawn that are more precise in separating journalistic practices. "Modesty," for example, might be a better term than "Humility" in describing Chinese journalistic practice. Like all ethics codes, the Chinese code is evolving. Newer revisions (Beijing Review 1991) maintain the call for journalists to be "loyal to the cause of socialist journalism" and to "safeguard national interests and state policies." But the code- making All China Journalists Association also directs journalists "to strengthen their ties and cooperation with journalists and journalist organizations" in other countries, particularly Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and third world countries.

More recent dictates from the Beijing government have instituted a broad-based public ethics campaign that, according to Western reporting, "Imposes stronger controls over the media and culture" (Associated Press, 1996). According to these reports:

"The campaign will likely translate into appeals in the state-run media for officials and ordinary Chinese to be more honest, more patriotic, polite, and even to spit less. . . . To ensure its message gets through, the Central Committee told the media to report 'in a positive way.'"


A survey of journalistic practices in Asia that reflect two fundamental journalism principles of truth-telling and independence shows a wide range of interpretation of the role, status and relationship of the journalist with government, and a structure of journalism, firmly rooted in cultural values. The differences between those roles, relationships and structures and their counterparts in Western, particularly American, styles of journalism are important to note when analyzing press reports from Asian countries that will form the base of press reports to American news consumers. In addition to historic, cultural, political and policy contexts necessary to adequately interpret and report an event from these Asian countries, a knowledge of their journalistic context is necessary in "reporting on what the local press is reporting on."

American foreign correspondents become more acculturated to those contexts and more sophisticated in interpreting them as their tenure, experiences, and language abilities increase within the culture they are covering. Once knowledgeable, they can serve as effective filters, translators and interpreters. Trends in international reporting, however, have recently bypassed the correspondent to present news reports directly from their source to the news consumer through increased use of "local" reporting and footage by CNN and CNN International, and use of national press agency reports.

This increased usage carries an increased implication that knowledge of the various cultural contexts of such news reports, including their journalistic context, must be gained and applied by the newsroom gatekeepers before they are passed on to the news consumer.


1 The ethical concerns in this list were gathered from four separate seminars on Korean-U.S. journalism from 1993-1996, sponsored by Chung-Ang University and the Korean Press Association, held at the East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii.


Abe, Naoko (1995). Staff Writer, Foreign News Department, Mainichi Daily News. Personal Interview, 27 May.

Addison, Paul (1995). Tokyo Bureau Chief, Bloomberg Business News. Personal Interview 19 May.

Akhavan-Majid, Roya (1990). "The Press as an Elite Power Group in Japan," Journalism Quarterly, 67:4, 1006-1014.

Akihito, Haruhara and Isamu, Amenomori (1994). "Newspapers," in Japan's Mass Media. Tokyo: Foreign Press Center.

Associated Press (1996). "China unveils ethics campaign," Honolulu Advertiser, 11 October, A9.

Black, Jay, Steele, Bob and Barney, Ralph (1993). Doing Ethics: A Handbook With Case Studies. Greencastle IN: Society of Professional Journalists.

Brislin, Tom (1996). "Value Hierarchies: U.S. and Chinese Journalists," Media Ethics 7:2, 6,23-4.

Cooper, Tom (1990). "Comparative International Media Ethics," Journal of Mass Media Ethics 5:1, 3-14.

Ejiri, Susumu (1972). The Characteristics of the Japanese Press. Tokyo: Nihon Shinbun Kyokai.

Hahn, Bae-ho (1978). Communication Policies in the Republic of Korea. New York: UNESCO.

Halvorsen, Richard, (1992). "Confucianism Defies the Computer: The Conflict Within the Korean Press," East-West Center Special Report. Honolulu: The East-West Center.

Ishida, Takeshi (1984). "Conflict and Its Accommodation: Omote-ura and Uchi-soto Relations," in Krauss, E.S., Rohlen, T.P. and Steinhoff, P.G., Eds. Conflict in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kang, Hyeon-Dew (1991). Media Culture in Korea. Seoul: Seoul National University Press.

Kaplan, David (1995). Investigative Reporter, Editorial Consultant, Tokyo Journal. Personal interviews, 15-30 May.

Keguang, Guan (1989). "Journalism Ethics in China" in Cooper, Thomas. Communication Ethics and Global Change. New York: Longman.

Lee, Jung Bock (1985). The Political Character of the Japanese Press. Seoul: Seoul National University Press

"Press Ethics: The Chinese Way," (1991) Beijing Review 34:4, 9-10.

Pyo, Wan-soo. (1996) Editorial writer, Kyung Hyang Shin Mun. Personal interview, 6 September.

Reid, T.R. (1995). Tokyo Bureau Chief, Washington Post. Personal Interview, 17 May.

Sato, Kyoko (1993). "Kisha clubs opening up," The Japan Times. 10 July, 3.

Society of Professional Journalists (1996). "Code of Ethics."

Vanden Heuvel, Jon and Dennis, Everette (1993). "The Unfolding Lotus: East Asia's Changing Media," New York: Freedom Forum Media Studies Center.

Yu, Yanmin (1994) "Caught Between Two Masters: A Study of Critical Reporting in China," International Communication Bulletin 29:3&4, 19-23.

Presented to the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., March 6-8, 1997

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