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South China Morning Post (via Editors Weblog): Hong Kong business papers launch paid-for websites

October 28th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Online Journalism

The Hong Kong Economic Journal and Hong Kong Economic Times have both launched new websites with paid-for access models.

Subscribers to the Times’ site, who will pay HKD598 (£49) a year, will have access to full pages of the newspaper, a three-year archive and real-time markets coverage.

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Online Journalism China: Fake news feeds public mistrust in media

September 8th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Press freedom and ethics

Chinese sports writer Wang Xiaoshan has used the controversy over the age of China’s double Olympic gold medallist, He Kexin, to open a wider debate on the prevalence of so-called fake news.

The original case against He stemmed largely from Chinese press reports, both state-run and independent, that gave her age as 13 in the run up to the Games, and therefore below the minimum age of 16 required to take part in the gymnastic competition.

That such a wide variety of sources could all be prone to the same inaccuracy seems unlikely, but in a piece sourced from Wang’s blog and translated by John Kennedy at Global Voices, Wang suggests such mistakes are symptomatic of ‘many media’s pre-existing problem of making up news’.

According to Wang, there is ‘no way that He Kexin could have forgotten her own age’, and the widespread reports suggesting she was 13 were the result of laziness and an unwillingness on behalf of journalists to verify their sources.

China has been plagued by fake news for some time:

The most recent case comes from the official newspaper of Guangdong province, the Nanfang Daily, in which a reporter claims to have witnessed police foiling a terrorist bomb plot in the city’s airport.

If the journalist had listed the police as his source his story may have escaped unnoticed, but saying the story came from unnamed ‘travellers in the airport’, who were privy to the hijackers’ intentions, sparked a wave of incredulity amongst the paper’s web community.

In another instance, national broadcaster CCTV was lambasted for releasing footage that apparently showed Olympic volunteers donating money in support of the May 12 earthquake relief effort, only for eagle-eyed viewers to point out that the ‘donors’ did not actually put any money into the collection boxes.

The latter example is an obvious instance of propaganda designed to unite the country in the wake of a devastating disaster, but the commercial press is equally culpable.

According to David Bandurski, a journalist and researcher at China Media Project, the proliferation of fake news is the result of Chinese media’s struggle to redefine its role in the wake of the curtailment of government subsidies in the mid to late 1990s.

The withdrawal of the government’s financial support was not coupled with a loosening of the shackles of state control. As such, Chinese media faces an intense battle to attract readers and advertising revenue, but is stymied by both the perception and the reality that it is not free to report, or sell, the truth.

This catch 22 situation is best evidenced by a controversy that erupted in July 2007 when a local TV report showed Beijing street vendors making buns using waste cardboard and pork fat. National state media also ran the piece and it gained international prominence, but authorities later claimed the freelance reporter responsible had faked the footage.

This left the public suitably perplexed as to whom to trust, and deeply undermined confidence in the veracity of Chinese media reports. Many believed the story was damaging enough to warrant a cover-up by the government as it fell at a time when China faced significant international pressure over its food safety record.

Beijing responded by launching a campaign against freelancers.

Bandurski notes that such government-backed campaigns punish the individual journalists responsible without ever reviewing the ‘the deeper institutional causes’ that allow fake news to proliferate. He draws a parallel with the punishment of corrupt officials, who are seen as ‘isolated moral deviants’ rather than products of a system that is at its root corrupt, or at least encouraging of corruption.

Fake news will continue to be filed, whether intentionally or as a result of bad practice, until Chinese media finds a way to sell truth as a commodity and regain the public’s trust.

Yet a sceptical public that questions what it reads can only be a good thing: a healthy mistrust of officialdom may, over time, spur alternative news sources to find ways to supply readers with the truth, reducing the need for sensationalist fake news in the process.

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FT revamps Chinese website, increases video

September 1st, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Uncategorized

The Financial Times has overhauled its website FTChinese.com, which was launched in 2005.

FT video channels and content on careers are being added to the site, which will also have improved internal search and navigation, a statement from the publisher said.

Readers can also bookmark content on the site with a new ‘favourites’ tool.

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Online Journalism in China: Can the Olympics change the Chinese media?

August 12th, 2008 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Press freedom and ethics

Freelance journalist Dave Green reports for Journalism.co.uk from Beijing:

With the Olympic Games under way in Beijing, the political controversies surrounding the competition have taken a backseat while the world’s elite athletes grab the headlines.

There is a mood of optimism here that is difficult to define and a sense on the ground that the opening ceremony was a defining moment in history, one which it can be hoped will give China the confidence to move forward with the openness to question its past and, perhaps, admit to some mistakes.

Yet old media habits die hard: even foreign China Daily columnist Brendan John Worrell‘s assessment of the investment in “vital infrastructure” that has contributed to one of the most remarkable urban facelifts in history ignores the fact that many people have had their homes destroyed or walls constructed around their unsightly communities in the process.

Worrell conveniently ignores the protests in Tiananmen Square – perhaps unsurprising as the women marching against enforced relocations were given no coverage in the commercial press here – but he does go on to make a good point about China’s need to address “new pressing goals.”

Over on the country’s newsdesks, it took the influence of foreign editors to ensure the reporting of a US tourist’s murder received due prominence on the front pages and was not buried. Other coverage did not benefit from the same influence: the Xinhua News Agency’s report of five Tibet protesters detained in Tiananmen Square on the same day was tacked onto the bottom of the same reports of the tourist attack.

Perhaps the sheer insanity of protesting against repression in Tibet can justifiably be likened to that of stabbing three people and then committing suicide? Or perhaps it’s just because searching for the article online using the terms ‘Tibet’ and ‘protest’ will garner no references at all.

As Western eyes begin to adjust to the dark fact that the overwhelming security presence in Beijing may well be a necessary precaution given the attacks in the western Xinjiang Province, the media here is celebrating the mobilization of around 400,000 street-level forces. Yet you can’t help but feel that relishing the deployment of a 70,000–strong army of grandma vigilantes, as China Daily does, is a bridge too far.

The China Daily piece strikes an uneasy tone that veers between sinister and depreciating:

“Mind the suspicious strangers. You see one smoking guy over there is glancing this way and that, watch him, and report to the police station immediately once something is wrong,” it quotes 65-year-old Sun Li as saying.

“[C]atching bad guys is a policeman’s job but we’re here to help out and drink more water to prevent us fainting in this sunshine,” it concludes.

There are more serious issues to be resolved, in particular protests by the International Federation of Journalists over the constant presence of plainclothes police in the capital allegedly monitoring journalists, and more demonstrations will surely follow.

But, as Beijing’s media and its people feel the push and pull of global forces, it is safe to say that progress of a sort is being made. The key question remains what will happen after the circus leaves town, and will there will be enough residual pressure to keep the concessions that have already been made in place?

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Online Journalism China: shortcomings in the earthquake relief effort going unnoticed in the scramble to present a front of national unity

May 16th, 2008 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Newspapers

As the catastrophe and media blackout in Burma continues, coverage of the Wenchuan quake in China has taken centre stage.

While pictures and information on Burma are scarce, the international media has been given a free hand on the ground in Sichuan province, perhaps as natural disasters offer an unrivalled opportunity for the government to show itself in action.

Western media has produced some moving accounts of the tragedy as well as some more critical pieces on how the government has handled the rescue effort.

In the Guardian, Naomi Klein reports disgruntled parents lamenting the collapse of their children’s schools, and Tania Branigan quotes claims of corruption and misuse of funds.

Unsurprisingly, coverage here has primarily been on the rescue effort, the suffering and on Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao’s visits to quake-hit areas.

Domestic media has focused on the Party’s action plan and prominently featured press briefings detailing the government’s response, as well as making full use of photo opportunities for Party leaders.

Wen seems to have become the human face of the Party’s disaster relief efforts. He is visible in the same way that he was during the winter snow disaster; where he personally visited the gridlocked Guangzhou train station to address stranded spring festival travellers.

Thursday’s China Daily featured a picture of him holding two forlorn looking girls by the shoulder and quoted him as saying: “I am grandpa Wen Jiabao. You must hold on, child! You will be saved.”

China Daily has focused on the human cost and survivors’ tales, running capped-up front-page headlines “MAGICAL MOMENTS,” and RESCURERS RACE AGAINST TIME”.

Like the snow disaster, a lot of prominence is being given to donors’ generosity and volunteer rescue efforts (including those of foreigners on the ground) as China again attempts to present a united front.

However, the New York Times carries an excellent article asking why the government has accepted aid from Japan, Taiwan and Singapore but rejected offers from others.

Despite the huge mobilization of the army, the troops lack the necessary heavy lifting and drilling equipment to dig for survivors.

Such shortcomings seem to be going unnoticed amongst the scramble to present a front of national unity, and few here are asking why professionals from the West are being told to stay away.

According to China Media Project (CMP), critical coverage of the quake has apparently been banned by an edict discouraged by one of  numerous directives intended to stop the spread of malicious rumours stories that may show the authorities in a bad light.

However stories like this, on the poor structural integrity of the schools that have collapsed, seem to have passed unnoticed.

CMP also runs a translation of another editorial by Southern Metropolis Daily editor Chang Ping. Chang highlights the dubious nature of the law on spreading false rumours in the light of the public’s overwhelming demand for information regarding the quake.

The law has came to the fore after a number of false rumours also surfaced in chatrooms and forums alleging that the authorities had somehow been warned that the quake was coming but suppressed the information, it would have perhaps been easier to dispel some of these myths quickly if the ever present spector of the authroities didn’t loom large and automatically make people suspicious of any news that suggests underhand activity on their part.

It will be interesting to see if the commercial media will begin receiving pressure to avoid critical reporting in the coming days when fewer survivors turn up and locals face the grim task of moving the dead and contemplating rebuilding their towns and homes and lives.

That will be a time for much reflection – and a lot of reflection may lead to some touchy questions.

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Online Journalism China: The voices in-between the official press and the western media

May 9th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Online Journalism

Adding to the burgeoning hoard of international bloggers on Journalism.co.uk, China Daily’s Dave Green offers an insight into the world of online journalism in China.

Domestic furore over the Western media’s reporting of the Tibet risings and the Olympic Torch relay was as inevitable as night following day, but the nature of the backlash wasn’t as simple as Chinese patriots toeing the party line.

There was – of course – the usual patter of soft patriotism: MSN has been running a campaign urging users to add ‘love China’ symbols to their usernames – an estimated seven million Chinese MSN users have signed up so far.

And hard patriotism at the involved and overtly politicised level when Anti-CNN.com – a site aiming to ‘expose the lies and distortions in the Western media’ – was set up after CNN commentator Jack Cafferty called the Chinese government ‘goons and thugs’.

There’s an implicit irony – hypocrisy even – of calling Western media biased, it rather suggests there’s little hope of any introspective eyes turning on the output of the domestic media and realising its failings.

But things are rarely as simple as a polarised set of black and white opinions.

If you take the reaction to a recent essay by Chang Ping, deputy editor-in-chief of the Southern Metropolis Daily, as any kind of benchmark then calls to discover the middle ground and advocate the use of the internet to hunt for the truth on all media may be an even more radical idea than Chinese popular public opinion accepting what’s written by the Western press.

Chang wrote: “If netizens genuinely care about news values, they should not only be exposing the fake reports by the Western media, but also challenging the control by the Chinese government over news sources and the Chinese media.”

This comment on Anti-CNN.com, not unlike Chang’s suggestion, is also simply calling for better reporting and scrutiny of both sides.

Chang’s comments led him to being widely labelled a ‘Chinese traitor’ and a ‘running dog’.

The worry is that his suggestion for simple scrutiny will go unheard amongst the clamour to present a united front against perceived foreign oppression. If it does – if the middling voices are not heard – the chances of Chinese looking beyond state-controlled media for news on anything but the most local or trivial of issues seems remarkably slim.

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Online Journalism China: There’s an expanding array of tools to supply uncensored news – but how many are prepared to listen?

April 15th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Citizen journalism, Online Journalism

To add to our burgeoning hoard of international bloggers, Journalism.co.uk has recruited China Daily’s Dave Green to write about online journalism in China.

I recently fell into conversation with a Beijing taxi driver regarding his opinion on the situation in Tibet. His view was that he really had no idea who to believe, as he felt the government-controlled news sources could not be relied upon to provide a truthful account of what was really happening, and, even if he could read English, he would be reluctant to trust Western news sources either.

As an employee of China Daily I encounter on a daily basis the worst of China’s state-peddled misinformation and propaganda.

While it is true that Chinese language newspapers are sometimes prepared to go against the grain and report the truth, the reality is that all traditional media sources are state controlled, and those who wish to dig deeper must do so on China’s burgeoning blogosphere.

The cautionary tale of Zhou Shuguang illustrates the dangers Chinese bloggers face when attempting to bring the truth to light.

Zhou gained a measure of fame early last year for documenting the plight of a homeowner in Chongqing who refused to give in to the demands of a property developer and allow his home to be demolished.

Under the pen name Zola, Zhou publicized the case on his blog and provided up to date coverage with video and still images as the dispute progressed.

The publicity Zhou generated eventually led to the authorities reaching an agreement with the homeowner, inspiring Zhou to continue exposing similar cases.

However, his work, which was funded by a mixture of interview payments and donations, came to an abrupt end in November last year after he travelled to the city of Shenyang in northeast China.

There, he met with a number of defrauded investors who had been promised a 30 per cent return for providing for an aphrodisiac powder. The scheme was, of course, (ant) pie-in-the-sky and resulted in an army of angry investors demanding compensation and government action.

On his way to an interview, Zhou was picked up by Chinese police and told in no uncertain terms to get on a plane home and cease his activities.

He has since returned to his native home to open a business selling vegetables.

Zhou’s short-lived crusade raises a number of interesting issues, not least how he managed to keep his blog open.

Unsurprisingly, Zhou Shuguang’s Golden Age blog was added to the list of blacklisted websites soon after he began work, which prevented it being accessed in China.

However, Chinese netizens, led by blogger Isaac Mao are now increasingly hosting their blogs on servers outside the Chinese mainland.

While this still requires viewers to circumnavigate China’s firewall via the use of proxy servers, it does mean they are safe from being totally shut down by the authorities.

As John Kennedy documents on his excellent Global Voices China blog, the work of AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia has inspired an increasingly net-savvy population to continue using the highly-encrypted services offered by Skype and Gmail to communicate.

Skype drew criticism in 2006 for partnering with TOM Online, a mobile internet company based in China, to restrict Chinese netizens to downloading a modified version of the software that incorporates a sensitive word filter.

However, for those who intend to seriously pursue citizen journalism in China, obtaining original Skype software is not a problem, and Zhou Shuguang used it extensively to interview people regarding the sensitive topics that he covered.

Those who choose to try and provide uncensored and accurate news in China have an expanding array of tools to help them win the battle with the censors, there are also tools to help read and watch their material behind the firewall.

However, as James Fallows says, the wider question remains how many Chinese will be prepared to listen and watch.

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