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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Commentary: The inflated credibility of the Western media

November 24, 2009

By Lu Jingxian
Global Times (People's Republic of China)
November 23, 2009

Are the Western media in China stalwart defenders
of the truth, or do they bring a slanted bias and
preconceived ideas to their coverage?

Three years ago during the annual session of
China's top legislative body, access to "Massage
Milk," a popular blog by art critic Wang Xiaofeng, was abruptly blocked.

Massage Milk, which devoted a fair part of the
content to taunting offcial cultural policies,
was widely read. On the blanket webpage, a brief
note read "the page you are requesting is not
available due to reasons known to all."

It was enough to spark the imagination. Soon
Reuters claimed that another bold journalist had
been silenced under Chinese government's media
control. The report was circulated among other
Several days later, the blog was reopened. In the
new post, Wang explained he shut down the website
himself, intending to see what would happen. None
of the Western media bothered to confi rm the
facts with him before reporting it.

The controversial "setup" did challenge ethical
standards, and Wang's apology didn't seem to
appease many offended Chinese. But how could the
Western media be trapped when they had plenty of chances to verify it?

That same spring, Beijing was hit by the worst
sandstorm in years. Dust floated in the air. The
wind shield of the cars was covered by a thin
layer of sand. A German radio station stated that
the storm left vehicles buried in sands several
centimeters thick, and hospitals were swarmed
with patients with respiratory diseases. Western
media, picked up by over 200 sources. But then there was a twist.

I happened to check out a big hospital hoping to
find story tips at the same time. To my surprise,
the respiratory section was quiet. A few patients
were waiting, but nobody's symptoms were caused
by the sandstorm. The nurse showed me the
patients' list for the day. Nothing indicated a
soaring number of patients suffocated by the sandstorm.

Reporters are under constant pressure to
dramatize the mundane daily routine. Newspaper
space needs to be filled and air time has to be
covered. Sometimes it means making something out
of nothing. They hardly have any impact on the local audience.

But there are also issues that touch sensitive
Chinese nerves, such as the coverage of Tibet.

Complicated history, a polarized view on economic
growth vs. cultural maintenance, a bias toward
Buddhism, deference to the Dalai Lama, and
disagreements with China's Tibet policy have all
contributed to tilting the Tibet question. An
issue that needs lengthy, in-depth reporting
instead receives simplifi ed, one-sided coverage.

Inflammatory language, especially after being
translated into Chinese, adds to another layer of
offense to a Chinese audience who are often not
used to the sarcastic style of the Western press.
Framed interviews, cropped photos, and sometimes fabrications also emerge.

In reporting the Xinjiang riots last July,
Western media followed the same patterns. The
result was the further deepening of long-held misunderstanding.

Admitted, the unsophisticated information
disclosure of Chinese government, and equally
important, lack of solid coverage by the Chinese
media have led to miserable result that even
misleading coverage is eagerly seized by a world hungry for information.

Western media is granted a fl attering status of
credibility in China, refl ecting the
embarrassing weakness of the Chinese press.
Disadvantaged groups regard the Western media as a symbol of justice.

Scandals broken by Western media are given more
serious consideration. Their way of reporting,
writing and competing for exclusive news are
followed among Chinese peers. It's fair to say
that the existence of Western media has helped push the limits in many aspects.

After the Massage Milk scandal, I asked a friend,
who was Beijing bureau chief of a US newspaper,
"Why is the Western media so interested in
covering the negative side of China?"

He replied, "Because we care, we think those
issues are important to people." I raised my eyebrow, half convinced.

A country in transition witnessing thrilling
changes almost everyday, China is an ideal place
for reporters, both local and overseas, doing
serious journalism. But it takes patience, hard
work, and sometimes bravery to break away from
long-held prejudices and report a changing China truthfully.

The author is an editor with the Global Times. lujingxian@globaltimes.com.cn
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