BEIJING - Since 2010, China’s number one state-owned newspaper, the People’s Daily, has published quite a number of commentaries concerning hot-button social issues. We are very pleased and applaud this. In general, these commentaries have a higher purpose and discuss national issues with sharpness.
Recently, though, the People’s Daily published a commentary written by Bai Long and entitled “Media, don’t be the hands that push negative social emotion.” The commentary, which is a criticism of Chinese media, also dishes advice to journalists, such as how to search for the truth – in a rational and objective manner – in the context of public clamor.
Nevertheless, the basic viewpoint of the commentary is very debatable. It quotes a few specific events and blames certain newspapers for “market-driven journalism” that add fuel to fire on hot social issues to gain readership.
Though the author doesn't specify what media he is referring to it is, however, it is very clear that he is talking about the urban newspapers that are particularly popular with readers for their coverage of controversy. And this is precisely what makes the difference between the “superior” People’s Daily and what it regards as “low-end” newspapers.
In 2008, President Hu Jintao divided the Chinese press into three categories: state-owned newspapers, radio and television; urban media; and online media. This trichotomy affirmed the different value and function of each different kind of media.
The professionalism and writing style so highly regarded by Bai Long are much better embodied by the urban media than by the Communist Party’s mouthpieces. They offer diverse and pungent commentaries as well as investigative reports with vigorous interviews that expose abuses of power.
Questioning the truth
These city newspapers took root in the late 1990s and went on to become the chief “questioners of truth,” testing and reflecting media competence as well as spirit. For example, in 2003, the Southern Metropolitan Daily exposed the tragic story of Sun Zhigang, a migrant worker who was arrested for not having a legal resident permit and then beaten to death in custody.
In 2011, Caixin media’s Century Weekly published a shocking story about a family planning agency in Hunan Province that forcibly took away infants whose families were violating the one-child policy and sent them to an orphanage, which in turn sold them to foreign adoptive parents. These outstanding reports led to significant social repercussions and helped to push forward China’s institutional reforms.
The majority of state-owned newspapers don’t hold a candle to these city newspapers. Even if the People’s Daily has demonstrated capacity for change in the past two years and should be praised for its commentaries, investigative journalism is not its strong point, and it shouldn’t be criticizing other media.
To say the least, even if some media do “market-driven journalism,” they don’t go as far as being “the hands that push negative social emotion.” Here are the three reasons why:
First, public opinion and the press should be entitled to “no-fault suspicion.” The press can suspect something but can also prove that earlier reports are either true or false by following them up. This will be then accepted by the majority of readers or concerned parties. When news are not accepted, it is often due to the fact that Chinese authorities are neither open nor timely with information of specific events.
Second, let’s take the foreign press as an example. In Hong Kong or the UK, tabloids will often present news in a provocative way. In many ways, their information is even more unreliable than the Chinese newspapers, which are much more regulated. Nevertheless, neither in Hong Kong nor the UK, the media have sunk so low as to become the source of a negative social mood.
Third, the performances of the Twitter-like Chinese microblogging sites prove that the phenomena of “rampant rumors” and “intensification of negative social emotion” are exaggerated. On the contrary, these microblogging sites are the voice of reason, and they also, to some extent, offset certain drastic actions off line.