In recent weeks — as we’ve seen many reports of attacks on schools in China, of suicides, and even more recently controversies over television marriage shows many have seen as inappropriate — a wave of criticism has turned on the mass media and there have been moves to clamp down. I think we should take a hard look at media transmission capacity in China, which is stronger now than it has been ever before, and that we should work in particular to avoid the negative effects media can have. But if tensions that have built up in China over many years are heaped all at once on the media’s head, that is plainly unfair.
When it is our society that is sick, should we really expect the media alone to drink the bitter medicine?
We all know that since economic reforms, the rapid development of China’s economy has created miracles that have drawn the gaze of the whole world. We also know that economic development has resulted in other things that we are now much clearer about (for example, the gap between rich and poor and conflicts between governments and populations at the local level) and still others that we are unclear about (where, for example, we should draw the lines in a world of changing morals).
It is only natural that the public should have their own views on the media. And without criticism from various corners of society, we might see more negative behavior in our media. But only criticism with basis is helpful and convincing. If we lose sight of the rational spirit and let our feelings and emotions be driven by those with ulterior motives, or those who mean well but have a superficial view, and if we do not have a media governed principally by rule of law, then the instances of disorder we see in our media and our society will only multiply.
Dealing first with the issue of school attacks in China, it seems that all at once attacks on the media have been everywhere. It’s as though we believe the godforsaken media have become coffin sellers, every day looking forward to the dead.
Academics inside and outside China have spoken before of the media as coffin sellers, saying that the market has pushed media to report more actively on natural disasters and other tragedies in order to grab attention. This, of course, is something media should be on guard against, avoiding the unnecessary inflation and coloring of stories, avoiding sensationalism and yellow journalism. But the first duty of the media is to observe our natural and social environment and to report on tragedy as quickly as possible. It is not their job to sing praises.
In fact, greater attention to sudden-breaking news incidents has been an important change in Chinese media [under the policies of President Hu Jintao since 2008]. Which is to say that even if media are in fact coffin sellers, the deaths of those inside the coffins were caused by other people and other factors.
Even as many, including a number of experts, were voicing alarm at how media had become accomplices in recent cases of violence, Premier Wen Jiabao stepped out and spoke against popular sentiment by pointing out that much deeper social causes lay behind these incidents.
Look at the perpetrators in these cases. Though there is a lot we still do not know, we do know they are all around 45 years old. They have all suffered job layoffs, broken families, terminal illness and other devastating setbacks. In a period of transition, as the economy is developing quickly, we should expect to see a rise in crime. But if these suffering groups were covered by employment, pension, healthcare and housing systems, their sense of disappointment towards society would only rarely boil over into hatred.
We must be on guard against those who want to use the charge of “sensationalism” against the media to put obstacles in the way of our hard-won concessions on openness of government information. International experience tells us that information openness should include information about various cases of violence, and if we cannot pass this test then there can be no basis for information openness and social transparency.
We have seen no cases in modern nations under rule of law in which such reports in the media have been prevented and attacked. There is some price to pay, of course, for openly reporting on such incidents, but this price is small compared to the relative benefits that come with increased social attention to the causes of these incidents and the strengthening of preventive measures to deal with them.
As the 19th century French sociologist Tocqueville said that the basic contribution of the newspaper was that “the evil which they produce is . . . much less than that which they cure.” If we do not have a clear view of this issue, then we will provide ammunition to those who have been opposed all along to openness of government information.
The controversy over news reports on suicides has still not settled down, and new attacks on suicide reports crop up all the time. The media has been accused of being infectious and an accomplice. These criticisms have been further supported by a 2008 report from the World Health Organization and the International Suicide Prevention Association.
This report points out that suicide is an important public safety issue having a profound and lasting impact on public sentiment and the economy. Approximately one million people worldwide commit suicide each year, and each case of suicide potentially impacts at least six others. The factors influencing suicide and its prevention are extremely complex, and they have still not been researched fully and extensively. However, evidence does suggest that the media does play an important role. On the one hand, vulnerable people will be affected by reports of suicide and may imitate the act. This is particularly true when reports are widespread, prominent and sensational, or when they describe the act of suicide in great detail. On the other hand, news reports on suicide that are handled responsibly can help to educate the public, and can encourage those at risk to seek help.
Naturally, media who report on suicides cannot entirely overlook self-discipline, but rather should as far as possible respect the advice given by the WHO — to avoid language that sensationalized or normalizes suicide, in order to avoid the suggestion that suicide is in any way a solution; to avoid placing news about suicides in a prominent position, and avoid repeating suicide stories inaccurately; to avoid mentioning the specific places where acts of suicide took place; to take care in the writing of headlines; to take special care in the reporting of suicide by famous persons; to be mindful of the impact reports have on family members of the suicide victims; to provide helpful information; to be mindful of the effect suicide cases might have on media personnel themselves.
China’s government has made progress in the area of governance by rule of law, but there are still a number of departments that wield the club of punishment. They seem not to understand the principal of governance that says, “that which is not authorized by the law cannot be done.” There is plenty of decent content on China Central Television, which is directly under the thumb of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television. But there are still many problem, for example the use of fake interviews in the news, the posing of sources by directors, disguised tobacco advertising, the parading of officials who are also business people in such programs as the Spring Festival Gala. But when have we ever seen CCTV punished for problems in its programming?
This editorial was excerpted from a Chinese article appearing in Time Weekly.