• 2005-03-17

    * U.S. Media’s Coverage of China


    Improving the U.S. Media’s Coverage of China
    2005-3-17 星期四(Thursday) 晴

    Improving the U.S. Media’s Coverage of China, and Vice-Versa

      Several weeks ago, I came across a multimedia feature story about China on the New York Times Website’s front page. Titled “China’s Great Divide, Rural Poor and Urban Rich,” the feature told a series of stories about China’s emerging social problems following more than two decades of continuing economic boom.
      Beginning with the story of a rural boy committing suicide by stepping in front of a locomotive for failing to pay his school debt of tuition, the series continued with how thousands of factories have been turning the countryside into “dumping grounds;” how the Communist Party skillfully split the peasant rebel leaders who used to rally together protesting illegal taxes and fees; and how the local government of a northwestern village arrested peasant protesters in order to take their land for an energy project.
      There were also stories of how a government-official-turned-magnate showed off his fortune with a huge chateau, which caused great discontent among villagers around the property; and how a street quarrel turned into a mass riot in Wanzhou, just because word spread out that “a ranking government official has beaten a poor porter.”
      These are very emotion-laden news stories. But the last line of the feature did a bad job by trying to put a discouraging frame on it: “China is having more trouble than at any time since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989 maintaining social order.” It sounded as if the social order in China is going to breakdown at any moment. Is it?
      As a four-year professional journalist before I came to the United States last August, I know China has always been having all kinds of troubles. But I also know this country is not facing a hopeless dead end as the Times story hinted. The fact is that “we are walking through a river while feeling the stones under our feet,” as former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put it. New problems appear here and there along with our social and economic progresses, but the government and its people have been trying to fix the problems all the way along. The news in the Times is not accurate, or not fair by telling just part of the story.
      I’m not trying to say that the U.S media should not point out China’s flaws. Actually I’m grateful to see some expose stories that are absent in China’s state-owned media, which have to toe the party line on “sensitive” issues. These stories help me to see a fuller picture of the real China. But do the American themselves see the whole picture of China? I’m afraid not. It is not rare for us to see stories about protest, dissidence or oppression in China frequenting the U.S. media. This is proved by a large number of academic content studies on mainstream U.S. media.
      In a paper submitted to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), Zengjun Peng, a former student of the University of Missouri, Columbia, examined 189 China-related news or opinion stories in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times in the year 1992 and 2001. Peng noticed that “the overall tone of the stories on China remains consistently negative across time.” He defined a negative story as one in which “the overall tone or prevailing elements in the story suggest political, social and economic instability/weakness, conflicts, and human rights, religious and other problems, which tend to contribute to a unfavorable image of China.”

       In another paper, Alexander Liss, a former M.A. student at The George Washington University, found “negative images of China overwhelm the positive.” Surveying four major U.S. newspapers, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal over a period from 2000 to 2002, Liss discovered that the vast majority of the articles had a theme that fit into one of the categories of “negative school.” They either focused on the “coming conflict between the United States and China,” or the “inevitable war between Beijing and Taiwan,” or human rights abuses, or instability and social unrest, or backwardness and corruption within the political system.
       Accompanying some neutral stories about China’s economic expansion, the U.S. newspapers paid much attention to depicting China as a rising military power threatening its Asian neighbors and the United States, such as Washington Post stories “Nations across Asia keep watch on China” on October 19, 2001 and “China raises defense budget” on March 5, 2002. As for the part of social disorder, Liss found the images presented in the New York Times showed “a country torn apart by increasing crime and a decaying network of social services.” Take China’s AIDS epidemic for example, the Chinese government was often portrayed as a deficient totalitarian authority, “combined with a Stalinist disregard for their lives and safety.” (“Dangers of the communist road,” New York Times, January 26, 2002)
      No wonder Michael Wenderoth, an American businessman who had been living in China for years, argued in a Newsweek article on October 27, 1997 that “something is wrong with this picture.” He pointed out that the anti-China rhetoric in the media “distorts some very basic truths.” There are bad things, there are also good things in China, which are not much different with what are going on in the United States, Wenderoth observed.
       Why do negative images dominate the China reports on the U.S. media? Is it a conspiracy of the American journalists? No, I don’t think so. I believe this has a lot to do with their view of what news is, and what kind of foreign news will appeal to the American readers. For American journalists, the elements that constitute newsworthiness generally include impact, conflict, familiarity, timeliness, proximity, human interest or bizarreness. These also apply to news from foreign countries, if not familiarity or proximity.
      With two elements absent, other elements, including impact, conflict, human interest or bizarreness, will have to play bigger roles. Beside disaster stories and state visit stories that have apparent news value or relevance to Americans, stories involving great drama and conflicts between bad guys and good guys, such as ordinary people defying authority or dissidents protesting for their right become favorite subjects of American journalists. “Americans like simple plot,” said Howard Goldbaum, a professor with the University of Nevada, Reno. This seems to be true in their coverage of China. But the simplification will often distort the U.S. public perception of China, which will do no good but hurt the two countries’ relations.
      American journalists may argue that they are just reporting news, and being independent from the government or any kind of propaganda, they have never tried to deliberately “demonize” China. I agree with them. Digging out wrong doings and exposing problems are important goals for most journalists who deem their career a mission to advance social justice. But before we hold out the flag of social justice, please try to understand China’s situation. We are two countries with many differences in our values. What one country considers natural might be completely intolerable to the other.

        The family planning policy of China, for example, has long been accused by the U.S. media of infringing upon human rights. But the American journalists may not know that the tremendous pressure of population is not only hampering the economic development of the country, but also affecting the livelihood of individuals. Many Chinese people, though wishing they themselves were exempted, agree that the population must be controlled. News from the recent annual Chinese People’s Congress revealed that the central government is considering letting the provincial governments to decide if their people can have more children. This is a sign of the government paying more attention to people’s choices. If the American media can include this part when reporting China’s birth control or “forced abortion,” the news will be more objective and balanced.
         Besides trying to be more balanced in covering certain events, the best way to show the American people a fuller picture of China is to diversify the subjects of reports. We know there are not too many people caring about political news. Human interest news, even some “trivial” stories about ordinary people, often attract more readers. I’m happy to see that the U.S. media are running more and more stories about China’s economic boom, diversified culture, and interesting stories such as the NBA star from China, Yao Ming, or human interest stories like American mothers accompanying their adopted Chinese girls on the visit to their home country. The greater variety of the stories, the better understanding the readers will have toward the Chinese people, though they are far away.
         This rule also applies to the Chinese media, which have similar problems of depicting the United States incompletely. Because of the word limit in one essay, I chose to go deep into one topic instead of touching on both. I hope I can address the other topic next time.