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China's Media Divide
Summary:With the exception of China Youth Daily, the vast majority of state-owned newspapers don't hold a candle to these city newspapers.

Photo: Newspapers sold on a Beijing street in 2010
Source: Flickr - faungg

By Zhan Jiang (展江), a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University
January 23, 2012
Economic Observer Online
Translated by Laura Lin
Original article: [Chinese]

Since about 2010, China's top party-controlled newspaper, the People's Daily (人民日报), has published quite a number of commentaries concerning hot-button social issues.
This has pleased many and won applause. In general, these commentaries have taken an elevated approach, discussing national issues with a degree of sharpness.

For example, the series of five commentaries on "social mentality" (社会心态) that the paper's editorial desk authored in April and May of 2011.* Each of these articles included views that went against the prevailing opinion on a particular issue.

Over recent years, even well-known commercial daily newspapers with strong commentary sections have repeatedly reprinted some of People's Daily commentaries.

Recently, though, the People's Daily published a commentary written by Bai Long (白龙) entitled "Media, Don't Be the Hands that Push an Unhealthy Social Mood" (媒体,别做不良社会情绪推手).

This is one of the few commentaries that takes the media as it's main topic. The commentary, which was also closely tied to a pressing social issue, dishes out criticism of the recent performance of China's media. Some of these criticisms, such as advice on how to "search for the truth in the clamor of public opinion," is in keeping with the views of most media professionals.

However, the basic argument of the commentary needs to be contested.

The author draws attention to recent reporting on a few social controversies like the case of a "young female deputy mayor in northeast China" (80后女副市长) and says that some media outlets have already become "pushers of an unhealthy social mood" (不良社会情绪推手).

Though the author doesn't specify which media outlets he is referring to, it's very clear that he is talking about the metropolitan daily newspapers (都市类报纸) that are particularly popular with readers due to their coverage of controversial social issues.

In my opinion, this is precisely what separates the "superior" People's Daily from 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 (党报党刊电台电视台); urban media (都市类媒体) and online media (网络媒体). This trichotomy affirmed the differing values and functions of each of these different kinds of media.

In fact, 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 metropolitan daily newspapers took root in the late 1990s and went on to become the chief "questioners of truth" (追问真相), testing and reflecting media competence as well as spirit especially through their investigative reports.

For example Southern Metropolitan Daily's (南方都市报) 2003 report exposing 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 (新世纪周刊) 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.

With the exception of China Youth Daily, the vast majority of state-owned newspapers don't hold a candle to these city newspapers. The new atmosphere at People's Daily over the past two years should be praised, but it's only the commentaries that have changed, they're definitely not making any progress when it comes to investigative journalism.

Because of its own weaknesses in this regard, People's Daily shouldn't be criticizing other media on these grounds.

That said, we should acknowledge that among these urban media outlets, there are some that don't publish much real investigative journalism and, driven by the strictures of "market-driven journalism" (市场驱动新闻事业), are often accused of only "hyping social controversies" (炒作社会热点) and "catering to vulgar tastes" (媚俗跟风).

But the principles of professional journalism are becoming more widely accepted within these metropolitan news outlets, with more and more papers establishing in-depth reporting or investigative reporting departments and hiring investigative journalists to staff them.

Other media outlets might not go as far as to set up their own investigative reporting units, but they will often reprint or repost excellent investigative reports published by others.

But to acknowledge that some media hype social controversies and cater to vulgar tastes is not to agree that they are "pushers of an unhealthy social mood."  

There are three reasons why this is not the case:

Firstly, public opinion and the press should be entitled to "no-fault suspicion" (无过错怀疑权). If investigations reveal that earlier reports were false, this will be then accepted by the majority of readers or concerned parties. Currently, the reason the public does not believe reporting on certain matters is often due to the fact that authorities are neither open nor timely when it comes to releasing information.

Secondly, let's look at the experience of how the press operates abroad. 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, have the media sunk so low as to become the source of an "unhealthy social mood".

Thirdly, the role that Weibo - a popular twitter-like microblogging platform - has played in recent public debates proves that fears about "rampant rumors flying about" and the sharpening of the social mood are exaggerated. On the contrary, the arguments that appeared on Weibo were for the most part reasonable, and they also, to some extent, offset certain extreme activities that were taking place offline.

Therefore, no matter which way you look at it, concerns that the media have become "pushers of an unhealthy social mood" are overblown.

News in English via World Crunch (link)

The five articles on "social mentality", some have been translated by China Media Project.

1. "Nurturing a Social Mentality" A Test for Those in Power ("心态培育",执政者的一道考题), - Apr 2011
2. Be Tolerant of "Differing Ideas" (以包容心对待"异质思维") - Apr 2011
3. Use Fairness and Justice to Rid China of a "Victim Mentality" (用公平正义消解"弱势心态") - May 2011
4. How Can We Start to Seek Greater "Reason" (追求理性从哪里起步)  - May 2011
5. On Listeing to the "Sunken Voices" of China (倾听那些"沉没的声音") - May 2011

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