By some Chinese accounts, “fake news”, or xujia xinwen, has plagued news media in China since at least the Cultural Revolution, at which time media fabricated news to suit the political purposes of the Gang of Four. It is an extremely fuzzy term, and obviously, while it may be used by Chinese officialdom in campaigns against news regarded as unprofessional (or against party directives), could in its broadest sense (though not the official one) overlap with party propaganda itself.
When looking at fake news in mainland China, one of the toughest challenges is to separate genuine calls for professionalism from moves to control news unfavorable to the party. Over the last two decades, as economic reforms have moved ahead, the problem of fake news has certainly grown more serious. Many officials and academics point to the commercialization of media industry and intensified market competition as root causes – the need for a political reform and a more independent role for journalism as a “profession” is not addressed openly.
In June 2005, the Central Propaganda Department held a forum to discuss the issue. Reading between the lines, their definition of “fake news” predictably includes that which falls outside the purview of state news control, or “guidance of public opinion” (舆论导向). They mention the following tendencies in fake news: (1) more fake news is being outright fabricated, using flights of the imagination rather than real news materials; (2) more news is being exaggerated by media to generate public buzz; (3) there is more fake foreign news (including that generated by domestic journalists and that taken from foreign news sources); (4) non-journalists from different fields of the society are participating in the “creation of news”; (5) some well-known “mainstream” media also taking part in the creation and distribution of fake news; (6) the Internet is amplifying the influence and reach of fake news.
Writing in late 2005, one propaganda official for a local News Commentary Group (阅评组) in China addressed fake news and its causes: (1) journalists do not do work hard enough to verify the reliability of information in their stories; (2) journalists interpret stories in such a way as to exaggerate their importance (in other words, sensationalize them); (3) editors and reporters, knowing there are factual problems, modify problematic portions in such a way as to push the report through, circumventing controls; (4) some journalists lack the common sense necessary to distinguish true from false; (5) management practices are poor (by publication officials, top editors, etc) and there are no methods in place to ensure investigative reports conducted in areas outside the publication’s home turf are checked for accuracy. Beginning in 2001, The Journalist Monthly (新闻记者), a magazine on news media published by the Shanghai Academy for Social Sciences, began publishing an annual listed of “Top Ten Fake News”. Results from 2001 to 2005 are available on the publication’s website, or here through Xinhua News Agency.
[Posted by Brian Chan, May 11, 2006, 12:30pm]