Diving into shallow coverage


Western media coverage of the Olympic Torch Relay and the coinciding spate of protests over the perceived lack of cultural autonomy in Tibet has been superficial, analysts at an EJC seminar in Brussels said 27 May.

And this superficial coverage – an extreme example being CNN anchor James Cafferty’s inflammatory remark that Chinese people are “the same group of goons and thugs they’ve been for the last 50 years” – is troubling to Chinese people, journalists from the Republic said.

“In the past year I have witnessed a very negative atmosphere from the Western media on China,” said Zhang Hong, vice editor of The Economic Observer’s website. “About the Tibet issue, and about the Olympic Torch Relay or about other issue. And that’s something that happens because the audience has a long-term misunderstanding, long-term preconception of China. This kind of perception or misunderstanding in some part is caused by the media report.”

Protests during the Olympic Torch Relay, which itself has garnered more media attention than ever before, a mid-March race riot in Lhasa and the devastating earthquake in the Sichuan province have rocketed China at the fore of global media attention.

But analysts François Godement and Aidan White assured the group of visiting Chinese journalists that there is no media plot against China. Rather, they said, there exists in the West a lack of deep understanding about the issues.

“The people who demonstrate don’t really know much about the situation. There are a mixture of political movements who have sized the occasion. In fact the Chinese-Tibetan debate becomes a domestic debate France as it has in the American presidential campaign,” Godement said. He is the president of the Asia Centre in Paris, and a senior research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It acquires a logic of its own within our political democratic system.”

Aidan White on media freedom in China (MP3):

François Godement on media freedom and cultural issues in China (MP3):

Godement and White, the secretary general of the International Federation, have each been to China multiple times in the past 20 years. Godement speaks Mandarin Chinese.

Coverage of the 12 May earthquake has revealed, it seems, slightly more open attitudes on the part of the government. Chinese journalists at the seminar say they and their colleagues were allowed to go to most places of interest. While some, like private television journalist Quin Feng of Phoenix Satellite Television Holdings Limited, did say they are pressured not to write criticism of the government’s slow reaction, most pointed to the enormity of the coverage as a good sign.

“As a journalist I’m not satisfied with the current reporting environment in China,” Hong said. “We can say the earthquake reporting was excellent.… The reporting coverage is so extensive, never seen before. But there’s a difference there. You might notice that the state-run organisation they can have a various advantage in reporting. They can report with the armies, they can report on the helicopters. But for the primary media there’s no such chance. We are trying to report every angle of the society. Sometimes we’re stopped by a regulation or the unwritten rules. We are trying to test the limits, to test the boundaries…I think this is the changing China.”

Godement said he considers the coverage a demonstration of how China has evolved in the past 30 years. He did not see such coverage during the 1989 floods.

“You show just about everything,” he said. You show the disaster, you show the people dying and you show the people waiting and not getting of course, help. You show the anxiety. This creates a popular movement alongside the government…”

White took a delegation of the IFJ to Beijing for an official visit on 13 April. He said during his time there he watched frustrated foreign correspondents ask the state ministry of information for more information about the events. He said after the meeting, the Chinese journalists told their foreign colleagues they were also getting little information.

Such encounters exemplify the need for dialogue, White said. The IFJ in the Asia-Pacific region has as such recently agreed to a project to establish a media monitoring centre in Hong Kong.
The IFJ published an 18-page report about the dialogues it had, which White distributed to the 15 or so participants of the EJC seminar in Brussels on 27 May. The IFJ website has a bevvy of articles about media issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

White’s report went beyond the usual concern about access to information in China. “It is clear that the modernisation of China and its improving social, industrial and economic conditions provide opportunities for expansion of the influence of media and journalism,” his report stated. “The sense of national self-confidence which prevails in the large cities is evident also in journalism, even the staid and more conservative branches of official media and certainly in the atmosphere of the journalism schools.”

Chinese journalists at the seminar said the coming Olympic Games will be a celebration of their increasingly dynamic society.

Zhao Xiaomo, who is a programme director for cultural programmes at Shaanxi TV Station, said she thinks Western media should not politicise the Olympic Games. She said many people in China are learning English and registering to volunteer for the Games.

Wang Huan agreed. She is a reporter for Caijing Magazine concerned with political issues. She said she’s most looking forward to the Games because she will try and take her father to watch ping pong.