When will the right time come to ask the tough questions?

By David Bandurski — In the immediate aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, one line you could expect to hear from many Chinese, including journalists, was: now is not the time for the serious questions, but the time to act. One month on, as the media spotlight turns slowly away from Sichuan, the tough questions still hang in the air. Why did all of those schools collapse? What impact might dam projects have had on the quake?

But now, many are saying, it is time for the nation to nurse its wounds and move on. Now it is time to sing the “main theme.” Now it is time for the people to rise for the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games and China’s glorious moment.

And what about those questions?

This is the theme of one of today’s stronger editorials in China’s media, a second one from columnist and Phoenix TV host Leung Man-Tao (梁文道). The editorial appeared on the Nanfang Daily Group website as well as Phoenix Online and QQ.

Leung raises a number of interesting points, including the idea that over-emotional earthquake coverage owed as much to the “irrepressible urge of media in the commercial age” to find emotive selling points as to a party propaganda campaign.

Disaster in the Age of Multi-Dimensional Media

This was a disaster that received all-around coverage by China’s media. And as it was the first such time, there are naturally many areas we can turn our attention to and view carefully. We do not do this as an assault on morale, or because we want to dab salt on open wounds. We do it so that we can walk out onto a broader road, where we can see farther into the distance.

Owing to the government’s unprecedented openness early on, it was not only reporters from Xinhua News Agency and other central party media that went to the scene, but media from all over the country and the world. In a single night, a flood of multi-dimensional media – text, sound, video – surrounded audiences 24 hours a day. People hungered for information, and media scrambled to provide it. In such a situation, a little rule that has weathered and dominated countless disaster reports was transplanted to China.

This little rule was to rush out in the early stages with a huge volume of stories about the realities of the disaster situation, and then to gradually shift the focus to moving deeds in the relief effort. This little rule was not something deliberate on the media’s part, but came out of interaction between media and audiences. In the immediate aftermath, everyone naturally wanted to know the newest and most accurate information. But as the cruel reality of death and dying was repeated before everyone’s eyes, there was no way for them to entirely bear it. And so, just like a stage drama, the well-tried norms of storytelling came into play. Stories of heroic rescue and other stories “radiating humanity” steadily cropped up, until they became the focus — because audiences really needed emotional relief.

On top of this unwritten rule, which routinely emerges in disaster reporting overseas, China’s longstanding tradition that holds that “fighting the disaster is more important than the facts of the disaster” (抗灾大于灾况) worsened this tendency to dramatize. After the dead become numbers and we begin to feel numb to the scenes of devastation, everyone needs stories that can console our pain and move our hearts. When we feel despair we need to renew our faith in those values we believe in, and we particularly yearn for release from our troubles. So all of this is natural.

Just as “natural” is the irrepressible urge of media in the commercial age to take pain and transform it into limelight. They seek exclusive scenes, and use techniques like music to stir emotions up again and again — and more, in our national circumstances, they follow on the coattails of officials, holding them up as examples. This means that the in-depth analysis and long-term thinking we should have are delayed or non-existent.

Let’s just say that all of this is forgivable. Can we all expect a time when we’ve cooled off enough to start the process of review and reassessment? What I’m most afraid of is that the attention of the audience will begin to shift. I’m afraid that once everyone has shed their tears, parted with their donations and made peace with their own humanity, they’ll think it is time to bid this matter farewell – time for us to dress our wounds and move on, starting from the top by celebrating the Olympic Games.

Our own pains are an easy matter to resolve, but the hurt in the disaster area will take at least 10 years to make better . . . If you think about it, have the lives of those who suffered from SARS returned to normal? Have we found all of those child slaves in Shanxi? Rebuilding still is not done in those areas affected by the Asian Tsunami, which brought the biggest tide of donation pledges in world history, and many of those pledges have still not materialized.

When tours of leaders to the disaster area, donations by major commercial enterprises, and even disaster relief workers talking about their own experiences begin to override stories of mothers still searching for their children and survivors still scrambling to rebuild their lives, then this ruthless media process has already begun . . .

But how many questions do we still need to ask? Why did those schools collapse? Where did all of these dams come from? (The complicated cause and effect relationship between reservoirs and earthquakes has been hotly debated by experts). What kinds of hiccups were there in the management of the relief effort? Yes, we have to go on with our lives. But where will the survivors live? How will they live? Will loans have to by repayed for those homes that collapsed? In these television programs that go to absurd lengths to stir emotions . . . these questions are growing cold and are in danger of being pushed into insignificance. Of course a lot of people angrily condemn the problem of “tofu suds” engineering, and they want to go after those without conscience, “giving them death.” But I’m afraid they are too busy, and there are too many “death sentences” to carry out.

These may seem like rough words, because they do not fit with the main theme (主旋律), not with the main theme set by the government but the main theme hummed out of the hearts and minds of every media consumer. In the immediate aftermath [of the disaster], words like these are empty distractions from the urgent work of rescue. Later, words like these disrupt everyone’s atmosphere of personal healing.

[Posted by David Bandurski, June 12, 2008, 9:53pm HK]

6 Comments to “When will the right time come to ask the tough questions?”

  1. […] When will the right time come to ask the tough questions? (June 12, 2008, China Media Project) http://cmp.hku.hk/2008/06/12/1072/ […]

  2. […] mattsteinglass under Uncategorized   Leung Man-Tao, host on China’s Phoenix TV, writes an admirable editorial (via David Bandurski at the China Media Project) exhorting Chinese media not to lose focus and to […]

  3. […] 15, 2008 by chunzhu When is the right time to ask tough questions? But how many questions do we still need to ask? Why did those schools collapse? Where did all of […]

  4. Jim says:

    If only we had more people who are sick of hearing about the earthquake post blog posts about how they don’t care about Sichuan or they had wished more people had died or make silly suggestions that somehow this is not about shoddy construction but about karma. Oh wait…

  5. bocaj says:

    expect the answers to these questions in an early morning broadcast of 走进科学 about 5 years from now. . .

  6. Phil Hand says:

    It’s the standard bait-and-switch, and it’s so easy to fall for it. With the scale of the disaster, I felt so much sympathy I was willing to let a few days go by. But it’s always a mistake. When the questions are right there, staring you in the face, they should be asked right now.
    It’s not as though China has a long-winded but basically reliable judicial system like the US or UK. Pretty much the only way crimes like these can be exposed at the moment is through the press. And that means they have to be exposed within one news cycle.

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