Xinhua News Agency: How did fake reporters become so savage?

In China the problem of “news extortion”, in which reporters (or supposed reporters) arm-twist officials or companies into paying up to keep stories under wraps, has complicated causes. One key problem is the awkward marriage of official control and commercial wantonness in China’s current media climate. While media are still regarded as important tools of the party — which can make journalists formidable (depending on who’s being “investigated”) — they are under ever greater pressure to generate ad revenues. In a country where media are just beginning to learn about meeting the needs of the reader (to the extent that’s possible under state control), the threat of an expose can be a powerful inducement to advertise. [SEE "China's Yellow Journalism", Far Eastern Economic Review, June 2006].

Most of the institutional reasons for corruption in journalism get short shrift in China. In rare cases where “news extortion” does come up, the language generally turns to the “responsibility” of the individual “news worker”. Journalists are showered with ideological terminologies, like the Marxist View of Journalism or the Socialist View of Honor and Shame.

Lately, attention seems to be turning to a convenient scapegoat: the “fake reporter”. These are people without the required press credentials (记者证) and working for unauthorized or apocryphal newspapers and magazines.

But a December 12 editorial from China’s official Xinhua News Agency — whose own journalists were found guilty of corruption in late 2003 — seems to suggest, as it reflects on the media climate in China, that a vast area of grey exists between the “real” reporter and the “fake” reporter. In many cases these so-called “fake reporters” might in fact be unofficial hires for “real” media. The implication: this problem calls for institutional reform, not just law enforcement action.

The news peg for the editorial, “Who let fake reporters get this savage?”, is the recent arrest of 44 “fake” reporters in the city of Lvliang (吕梁), in China’s northern Shanxi province, in what national media called a “collective campaign against fakes” lasting over three months.

The Xinhua editorial follows:

“Who let fake reporters get this savage?”
Xinhua News Agency
December 12, 2006

. . . Lvliang’s fake reporters were merciless. These fake reporters would wave the banner of working for the good of the people, conducting watchdog journalism. The would display journalism credentials on their cars and carry counterfeit press badges. They would present fake materials they had gathered [on companies, etc], and would solemnly carry out activities in the name of news organizations . . . or but into village elections, or provoke conflict with village-run mines [NOTE: Chinese mines are notorious for their poor safety record and violation of regulations] . . . or extort money from corporate bosses, or swindle money. They were in the habit of doing all manner of things with the goal of benefitting financially from their illegal activities.

People can’t help but ask: Why are these fake reporters so savage? Who is it that gives them ground to stand on?

The lax management of news bureaus by a number of smaller newspapers and journals is one reason for fake reporters running amok. Some media seek only economic benefit, set up branch organizations in a careless way and are reckless in the hiring of personnel. On top of this oversight measures are nonexistent, so that some reporters act wildly against the law and public opinion. What’s more, some fake reporters use contacts and connections among real reporters at small newspapers or journals, so that it’s difficult for local officials to tell one from the other. Owing to the easiness of the extortion process and the motivation to profit, personnel [at media] without fixed duties follow the example [of fake reporters] . . .

It is also true that the repeated successes of extortion by fake reporters owes to problems endemic to some [media] work units. One deputy county head in Lvliang says: “We can’t bear being baited by these fake reporters, but neither can we bring them in. There’s nothing we can do. They’ve got a hold on us”. The boss of one unregulated mine says that he receives about 20 or so fake reporters each year and pays out roughly 100,000 yuan (US$12,300). Illegal coalmines and law enforcement offices are also frequent targets of fake reporters’ activities. From this one can see that the flies don’t pester the eggs that aren’t cracked. Wherever there are problems that are not dealt with quickly, then naturally weaknesses will emerge [把柄/or evidence reporters can hold over the heads of companies or officials] and end up in the hands of fake reporters. Those units that are blackmailed fear their problems will be revealed and that the fever will spread to the whole body, so that they’ll lose a great deal over a small matter. Often, not ever daring to uncover the fake reporter’s real identity they’ll bankrupt themselves to avoid utter disaster, diffusing the situation. This provides opportunity after opportunity to fake reporters. The severity of the fake reporter problem also reveals loopholes in government management and the problem of corruption.

Journalism is a sacred profession, and its inundation with fake reporters is disastrous, not only disturbing the normal social order but also doing severe harm to public confidence in the news media …

Dealing with the problem of fake reporters is critical, but stopping at [one-off] strikes against them is insufficient . . . Alleviating symptoms does not deal with root causes and cannot guarantee another group of fake reporters won’t crop up again. Only by dealing clearly with the causes, ensuring departments responsible for media (主管单位) take realistic steps to strengthen their management of media branch organizations, that there is a working system in place that removes obstructions to watchdog journalism by real reporters — and at the same time intensifying the anti-corruption campaign — can we make sure fake reporters lose the habitat [in which they now thrive].

[Posted by David Bandurski, December 15, 2006, 1:25pm]

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