China Youth Daily editorial calls for greater professionalism in Chongqing “nail house” reports

Chinese authorities recently lifted a prior ban on coverage of the so-called “nail house” in Chongqing, the story of a beleaguered homeowner fighting against forced removal for a development project, and coverage in the Chinese media is on the rise again today. But an editorial from China Youth Daily suggesting media have blown the story out of proportion has dragged the debate in a new direction. [BELOW: Screenshot of "nail house" coverage today at the Website of China's official Xinhua News Agency].

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The China Youth Daily editorial, written by Lu Gaofeng (陆高峰), suggests that some media have used (or abused) coverage of the “nail house” story in Chongqing to manufacture public sympathy for the “weak” in the bottom-line pursuit of bigger audiences. Lu argues that while officials must face public and media scrutiny “pure-heartedly”, the media need to hold up their end of the bargain, namely to “preserve impartiality and cool-headedness, not playing to the gallery, not misleading the public.” Lu says also that “rational analysis” has been insufficient in coverage of the “nail house” story.

Lu Gaofeng’s editorial should not, in CMP’s view, be read as an official appeal for media self-discipline, but rather as a call for greater professionalism. Unavoidably, though, the editorial raised the hackles of many netizens, who posted responses on major Chinese web portals. “I’d like to ask Lu Gaofeng,” said one Web user at QQ.com, “What is the responsibility of the media? I’ve paid close attention to these ‘nail house’ reports, and some reports are clearly mouthpieces of the government and the development company, and some reports are clearly on the side of the nail house owner. What’s so strange about that? We can’t always demand that media people don’t have their own viewpoints or leanings can we?”

Selected portions of Lu’s editorial follow:

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Media Overexcited in “Nail House” Coverage
By Lu Gaofeng (陆高峰)
China Youth Daily, March 29, 2007

. . . Chongqing Mayor Wang Hongju (王鸿举) said, “The ‘nail house’ incident has been frothed up like crazy on the Web, with Web hits surpassing 10 million.” Actually, that number is probably much higher.

While the interests of the masses are no small matter, and while the entanglement between a Chongqing resident facing eviction and a developer and the government may be symbolic as the Property Law has just passed, the media should face questions over its building up of this story about the “nail house”, the fight over removal and demolition and the pursuit of [legal] rights and benefits. Why is it that public opinion [on this story] should lean so decidedly to one side? Why can’t the public agree with the court’s judgement of “removal and demolition”, or the Chongqing mayor’s assertion that the resident is asking for unreasonable compensation? To a large degree it is because the media has used it ability to set the agenda and create public opinion to manufacture sympathy in its audience for the “weak” [i.e., the "underdog"].

The mass media possess the natural advantage of being able to enlarge events and public opinion. According to the views of a number of communication scholars in the West, mass media are structures of re-creation that “mimic their environment” (大众媒介是从事“拟态环境”再生产的机构). In many situations, the mimicked environments [of mass media] are not entirely accurate reflections of the objective environment, but are new “constructions” of media organizations and disseminators made according to their particular needs and interests. Some have compared this re-creative and agenda-setting function of the media to a spotlight or an amplifier — enlarging events and public opinion, drawing the attention and concern of the public, or even working as a distorting mirror — twisting or changing [things] according to the needs of the disseminator.

. . . What is regrettable is that in reports on the “nail house” we see only the extreme “focus” and “magnification” of this event by the media, their excessive “publicizing” of the issue of rights and benefits, to the point that some have even made this “removal row” into their own personal performances, seeking to win the eyeballs of the audience through a “feast” of sympathy. We seldom see rational analysis of this story from the media, or impartial reporting, or any attempt to quell [or soften] the swelling of noise [surrounding the story].

As we explore the question of good relations between media and officials, there are two points we cannot lose sight of. The first is that government offices should face media scrutiny (“supervision by public opinion”) with an attitude of public service, not using their power to keep others down, accepting criticism pure-heartedly. The second is the media’s own social responsibility, to preserve impartiality and cool-headedness, not playing to the gallery, not misleading the public.

MORE SOURCES:
We will not be moved: one family against the developers“, The Guardian, March 24, 2007
In China, Fight Over Development Creates a Star“, March 24, 2007
Property rights law fight hits home in China“, Associated Press, March 28, 2007
Nailing Down a Settlement“, TIME China Blog, March 28, 2007

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 29, 2007, 12:50pm]

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