This is the front page of today’s English China Daily, and it stands as a reminder that there are some things which get censored in the United States that don’t in China.
American journalism’s censorship is self-imposed, and there are notable exceptions, but the operational rationale is that graphic images are too emotional, and tend to obscure the objectivity of reporting. As a result dead bodies almost never appear in newspapers or on TV.
Chinese media is different. It’s not uncommon, though still not particularly common, to see dead and bloody bodies. Disaster stories, car accidents, terrorist acts, suicides—I’ve even seen pictures of self-immolation—these stories are often accompanied by gory pictures.
In the west, not everyone agrees with the no bodies policy. Some say that gruesome pictures show the reality of human brutality. Some go further, saying not publishing bodies is akin to providing political cover for war. It is true that in the US media publishing the bodies of US soldiers is the most taboo of all. Even pictures of caskets raise alarms. To the media’s credit, they acknowledge the difficulty of the decision and publish open discussions.
It’s hard to tell how or where this debate is taking place in China. They aren’t publishing complete disembowelment, or anything quite that graphic, so there are clearly guidelines, if not rules. At the very least, it’s fair to say the media here has taken a more liberal attitude toward showing the human cost of events.
A cynic could say that China’s stance is politically motivated. Chinese media a decade ago was famous for reporting only good news about China, and only bad news about other places. And while that is less and less true everyday, especially with the growth of commercial media, today’s picture is of a boy injured in a terrorist attack in Pakistan.
It’s hard to say where the line should be drawn for what’s too graphic to publish, but after years of seeing war depicted as smoke, bullet holes, and burning cars, I find the shock of dead bodies re-sensitizing.