Sensationalism, Speed and Free Speech

A recent media incident involving self-immolation, government bullying, and micro-blogging has got me thinking about the front lines of journalism in China, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s all about breaking news.

There seems to be a crucial period right after (or even during) an event, before government censors can clamp down, that journalists have an opportunity to spread potentially sensitive stories, with the added benefit that once a story is big enough it can’t simply be washed out but must be explained away.

Take the story of a family who resisted relocation. For several months the Zhong family resisted leaving their home, their utilities were cut off but still they stayed in protest. Eventually the government came to evict them. During the eviction 3 family members set themselves on fire, including the father. There were pictures, some of which made it into a mainstream newspaper. Then the censors went to work and suppressed the story from getting any further attention. All in all, a pretty typical story of censorship.

But the story didn’t end. A few days later two of the Zhong daughters decided to travel to Beijing to petition the government and do a TV interview. At the airport they were confronted by local government officials. They missed their flight and were told to leave. Feeling threatened they ran into the womens bathroom and called a local reporter.

The reporter posted their story on a microblog (which as far as I can tell is something between twitter and a blog) and it started getting reposted. The reporter also called other reporters who told other reporters. By the time the women left the restroom they had spoken on the phone to half a dozen newspaper reporters, 2 TV stations had prepared broadcasts, and the microblog had been picked up by several major internet portals.

After this, the story was once again hushed by censors, but only after significant exposure and a bit of fall-out. Several local government officials lost their jobs and a few reactionary editorials appeared, including one in the People’s Daily (the official national newspaper of the communist party) that took a surprisingly compassionate view of forced relocation.

But it’s less the story itself than the way it was reported that is indicative. It got big not through regular old Joes on the internet, though they helped, but through the news media, and the major commercial news media at that. Almost all of the news outlets to run stories on the women holed up in the bathroom were commercial media.

Take for example Sina, the website that hosted the microblog. It’s the most popular website in China; it’s also listed on the NASDAQ and boasts earnings at just under $100 million a year. Phoenix TV, which ran an interview with the daughters from the bathroom, was one of the first and still one of the few commercial TV stations operating in China. It’s the brainchild of Rupert Murdoch. These are big companies.

That these companies with so much to lose are willing to navigate icy waters says something in itself. But it’s also in what they have to gain that they have the disposition–some concoction of professionalism and competitiveness–to push government limits. In fact, the way this story played out reads a bit like classic digging for a scoop: a juicy story gets picked up by everyone because no one wants to be the guy without it.

And as you would expect of competitive media the story was sensationalized. Chengdu TV ran the story on their program 3o minutes of Truth under the title “Women’s Restroom Gate.” The microblog’s title was “Changbei airport live broadcast: Two women hiding in the restroom keep contact with China.” The phone numbers of the government and police officials involved were even posted on the web so concerned citizens could tell them their thoughts. If you stand back, it was really just two women hiding in a bathroom.

But outside the commercialization you can read a real active effort from reporters to shed light on an often unreported phenomenon. That the two daughters ended up in another stand-off with the authorities offered cover for journalists to bring up a taboo topic. They could write about the protest against relocation tangentially by covering these women’s predicament.

There is also an amazing amount of coordination among the press. One reporter wrote (translation from ESWN) about spreading word via press message boards and detailed the calls made between reporters. There’s a conscious effort to grow the story. The bigger it gets the harder it is to censor and the more people see it before it is. There is also safety in numbers; it’s hard to scapegoat a dozen reporters from a handful of the countries biggest companies.

This story exemplifies a formula for where the rubber hits the road on the push and pull of free speech in China. In the chaotic no-man’s land before news can be deemed politically sensitive, with market share and social activism in the balance, commercial media is snapping at the opportunity to make a story.

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