Shandong Live Broadcasts Test Media Limits

By Zheng Chu
Published: 2008-12-10

From nation, page 14, issue 397, Dec 8, 2008
Translated by Liu Peng
Original article
: [Chinese]

A local television network in Shandong province has been interrupting taped programs to insert breaking news, a practice common in foreign countries but rare in China due to tight media control.

Qilu Station, which claimed to be the network with the largest audience in Shandong, has been experimenting with the live-feed format from news scenes since October.

Media observers believed the "live feeds" were a cautious experiment in response to the central government's recent changed attitude towards news dissemination.

Breaking News
In the afternoon of October 9, a woman named Dong Mingxia experienced excessive blood loss when delivering a baby in a hospital.

Dong had the rare AB blood type of RH-negative, which the hospital had low stocks of and needed to solicit blood donations for immediately.

Upon learning of the case, Qilu station interrupted its regular program twice at different time slots to broadcast Dong's plight.

Though the appeal did draw the public out to donate blood, unfortunately, due to existing regulations that banned the use of freshly donated blood without laboratory testing, the hospital refused to carry out the blood transfusion and Dong subsequently died.

Since that incident, the station had on five occasions interrupted its regular programs for breaking news, ranging from chemical poisoning of workers and villagers due to a factory leak to a fire incident.

To provide such timely feeds, the station has set up an "exclusive news" programming, staffed with members from the Satellite News Gathering (SNG) team.

Having seen how foreign networks utilized SNG facilities to break news, the station's chief Yan Aihua thought such method should also be adopted, he told the EO: "We want to highlight the role of television station as a timely information dissemination platform."

The EO learned that most television stations in China were equipped with SNG facilities, but few had deployed them for channeling live feeds on emergency incidents.

An industry player joked that SNG facilities in China was either used for transmitting sport events or as a prop in the background of a network's publicity clips.

At some networks, staff must submit applications a week in advance to have access to SNG vehicles, and most of the SNG vehicles in the country hardly logged in 1,000 kilometers in mileage in a year.

A playwright director at Qilu Station recalled that once he covered a fire drill with the SNG equipment, and afterwards he told the chief of a fire station to alert him in future when a real emergency took place.

The firefighters chief replied: "Really? Could you really come when the real thing happen? Do you still want to keep your job?"

Opening-up Cautiously
The arrival of "breaking news" in Chinese media programming is perhaps in line with a change in the central government's attitude towards news dissemination.

During a visit in early June to the People's Daily, the Communist Party of China's official newspaper, Chinese President Hu Jintao expressed the need to improve news coverage of emergency incidents. He said the news dissemination mechanism should be authoritative, transparent, timely, and active.

The statement came a month after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, prior and after which, media control over the coverage of several major public incidents and disasters sparked negative public responses, such as public distrust and rumor mongering.

In contrast, the government received positive feedback after it allowed freerer media coverage for the earthquake zone and during the Olympic period.

A manager at the Qilu Station told the EO that recently, officials from supervisory authorities held discussion with media organization rather than just issuing orders.

The Qilu manager gave an example of a more relaxed reporting environment - the coverage of a fire at the Jinan Olympic Sport Center, whose roof had caught fire on November 11. The station provided a live broadcast from the scene, as well as relief efforts and municipal government's press conference afterwards.

He said timely coverage of such incident was unimaginable in the past, and that the station was not reprimanded for doing so. In addition, due to the station's timely coverage, rumours circulating on the internet about the stadium having been completely destroyed were quashed.

Despite the government's indication of opening up, Qilu's chief Yan believed the media should tread cautiously, bearing in mind the social impact of such broadcasts.

He said the station had its measuring stick for how far to go. For instance, if there were several or about a dozen workers coming out in the open to demand for pay rise, the station would immediately cover the incident.

However, if the number of workers involved grew to several hundred or thousands, the station would reconsider based on the foreseeable social impact and public reaction.

In late November, a group of taxi drivers organized a strike in the Changqing district of Jinan, the capital of Shandong province. Staff from Qilu station went to the scene and did spot interviews but the station decided not to broadcast the footage on the same day.

Instead, the station waited until the next day, when the Jinan municipal government had announced measures to lower lease fees for taxi drivers and crackdown on illegal taxi, and at that point it only released the spot interviews together with the latest action from the officials.

Yan said when he was in the US, he noticed that the public there were more inclined to tune in to television networks for the latest development when a major incident or emergency took place. However in China, the public usually opted for the internet.

The contrast was partly due to blackouts in mainstream Chinese media over certain "negative" incidents, and the public tended to look for information from other netizens or unverified sources. At times, rumors would develop, sometimes fueling irrational and emotional reactions.

Yan opined that in China, many television networks had deserted their role as information providers and instead focused on entertainment programs, mainly soap series, variety shows, and talent competitions - leaving the gap to be filled by print media and the internet.

Yan hoped that Qilu Station's experiment with "breaking news" could eventually be developed into a model that not only provided information, but also curbed rumors and influenced crisis management by the government.