Beijing 2008: China’s media win gold for downplaying negative news

By David Bandurski — The murder in Beijing on Saturday of American Todd Bachman, the father-in-law of U.S. men’s volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, was a major story, particularly coming as it did at the end of the first day of Olympic competition. But while Chinese Web users had a reasonably good chance of running across the story, newspaper readers might have missed it altogether.

The morning after the attack, the brief Xinhua News Agency release on the story was available under the domestic news section of the main news page at QQ.com, one of China’s top Web portals.

The QQ headline clearly linked the murder to the U.S. Olympic team: “Relative of U.S. Men’s Volleyball Team Murdered at Drum Tower.”

qq.jpg

[Screenshot of news page at QQ.com, August 10, 2008, 9am, article on murder circled in red.]

In China’s official party mouthpiece, People’s Daily, it was a very different story. As expected, the dominating meta-story was the Beijing Olympic Games as an unprecedentedly positive historical, political and sporting event.

Media have certainly been instructed to “emphasize positive news” during this key moment for China. And there is the further issue — pressure from propaganda authorities aside — of news choice among Chinese editors, who are likely avoid more unpleasant stories that seem to dampen the positive public mood surrounding the Games in Beijing.

The latter is of course partly a commercial choice, and also, no doubt for some editors, a personal inclination.

For the People’s Daily, the reason for de-emphasizing the Bachman story is clear — it damages the purely positive image China is trying to project for the Games. The story is therefore pushed to the very back of the paper, to page 19, the last page of news. Again, it is the official Xinhua release.

Why run the story at all? To demonstrate, of course, that China does not regard the incident as totally inconsequential.

pd-page-19-murder-story.jpg

[Above: Page 19 of the August 10 edition of People's Daily, story of Bachman's murder circled in red.]

How did commercial newspapers play the story?

Beijing Times, the commercial spin-off of the official People’s Daily, gave the story no front page coverage. But the paper did play it on page 10 with a slightly larger headline, right below a story about how train tickets in Beijing can now be purchased five days in advance, and right above a human interest story about a Chinese AIDS orphan visiting the capital to attend the Games.

The headline for the Beijing Times story, again the official Xinhua release, emphasized China’s diplomacy and made no reference to the U.S. Olympic team: “China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Gives Top Priority to Murder of American Tourist.”

beijing-times-pg11-murder-case-81008.jpg

[Above: Page 11 of the August 10 edition of Beijing Times, with the murder story circled in red.]

In perhaps the best indication of the pressure coming down from the top for “positive news,” and of the potential risk involved for national newspapers that might consider running the Bachman murder story more prominently, Southern Metropolis Daily, one of the country’s leading commercial newspapers, gave the story no front page attention.

Southern Metropolis Daily buried the story on page 16, deep inside its rosy Olympics coverage. The headline similarly made no mention of the murder’s connection to the U.S. Olympic team, focusing instead on the actions of police: “Beijing Police Issue Release on Murder of American Tourist.”

nfdb.jpg

[Above: Page 16 of the August 10 edition of Guangdong's Southern Metropolis Daily, with murder story circled in red.]

So, did any of the ten or so mainland Chinese newspapers to run the Bachman murder story on August 10 give it relatively prominent play?

Yes, in fact. Just one.

Xi’an Daily, the official party newspaper of the city of Xi’an, ran the Bachman story at the bottom right-hand corner of the front page. The tiny headline was identical to that of Southern Metropolis Daily, focusing on the actions of police.

xian.jpg

[Above: Front page of the August 10 edition of the official Xi'an Daily, with story on Bachman murder circled in red.]

In fact, if we were to offer awards for guts in the placement of the Bachman story in China, they would all go to party newspapers. Commercial papers, stuck between the official priority of “positive news” and the need to please readers with the right kind of Olympics coverage, were in no position to push.

The following is from the August 10 edition of the official Zhejiang Daily, which played the Bachman story on page 2.

xian-2.jpg

[Above: Page 2 of August 10 edition of Zhejiang Daily, with murder story coverage circled in red.]

Zhejiang Daily‘s placement of the story was perhaps extra gutsy considering that Tang Yongming (唐永明), the man responsible for the murder of Todd Bachman, was one of the province’s own, a laid-off factory worker from Hangzhou.

The headline read: “Zhejiang Man Kills One Tourist and Injures Two in Attack at Beijing’s Drum Tower.”

FURTHER READING:
The Chinese Censorship Foreigners Don’t See,” Rebecca MacKinnon for The Wall Street Journal, August 14, 2008
Beijing Olympics: Chinese Tanks Watch Over Media Centre,” The Telegraph, August 12, 2008
[NOTE: Richard Spencer mentions an order concerning the Bachman story, and calls it "unusually specific." In fact, the text of this order (The Telegraph claims to have obtained a list of these orders) sounds very much like what we have seen of such orders, including specific instructions for media to use only Xinhua news or avoid a particular story altogether. It sounds like the newspaper got its hands on a page of routine orders given to various media from the propaganda department and giving instructions on coverage.]
China’s Media Censored Over Stabbing,” The Age, August 12, 2008
Unlike Athletes, China’s Media Held to Different Standards During Olympics,” OpenNet Initiative, August 12, 2008

[Posted by David Bandurski, August 12, 2008, 4:37pm HK]

15 Comments to “Beijing 2008: China’s media win gold for downplaying negative news”

  1. Sam says:

    One world one dream
    (=One china, one people)

  2. admin says:

    Pffefer:

    In (1), again, your incomprehensible assertion that common knowledge is irrelevant knowledge.

    Who is anyone to say what “the interests of the Chinese people” are?

    Yes, Pffefer, you’ve hit on the heart of the matter. Who, naturally, is the CHINESE PEOPLE. Not the propaganda department, surely.

    Who? That is certainly the critical question.

    As to (3), I don’t think your cultural argument has a leg to stand on if you look at media environments like Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s. In my view, you’re expressing a very typical narrow cultural nationalism, the notion of “cultural subjectivity,” or wenhua zhutixing.

    Best,
    David

  3. Pffefer says:

    David,

    (1) Chinese media touting the party line is hardly surprising. You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. After all the Chinese media are not “free”.

    (2) Not that I am thinking the murder of a foreigner is inconsequential, any murder, done to anybody is quite significant. I am saying just because the victim is a foreigner, it SHOULD NOT make it more significant or newsworthy. The identity or nationality of the victim should not matter.

    (3) I certainly agree that Chinese media can be and should be better, but who is anyone to say what ” the interests of the Chinese people” are and that this case shows that the Chinese media only seek to serve the “narrow party interests”? I think this has little to do with the party leaders and party interests. It is as simple as this: The face-caring Chinese were ashamed of something like this and they wanted to just bury it. Do you genuinely believe had China been a democratic country its media would behave differently? To me it is a cultural issue rather than a political issue.

  4. David says:

    Pffefer:

    Thank you for your comments, and of course your questions.

    As to your first question, I mean of course the Chinese media, which are under a propaganda department order to only use the official Xinhua news release. Please see the Telegraph article I’ve included above for more on this.

    On your second question, newsworthiness is not a simple YES or NO question. It is a question of degree, and of course it is both very subjective and dependent in part on the media’s target readership. Naturally, if the Bachman story did not fit some of the criteria I mention, it would still be newsworthy — but these factors DO, or SHOULD, be calculated in an editor’s decision-making process.

    I think that you’ve established sufficiently that you think the murder of a “foreigner” in your country is inconsequential and would not be given attention in YOUR newspaper. I’m personally happy to discover, conversely, that British media thought the Newscastle case did warrant “tons of coverage.”

    On your last non-point, Pffefer, I can only caution you for your intellectual laziness. Why should the fact that something is common knowledge mean we pay no attention to it? Everyone knows that official corruption is a widespread problem in China. Are you advising your own Party to ignore it?

    ["You can’t ask the Chinese media to be like the western media you can’t ask the western media to behave like the Chinese media."]

    Begging your pardon, but what an empty and ridiculous sentence that is.

    I should hope you and I can both agree that Chinese media should be better, looking after the interests of Chinese people rather than the narrow interests of party leaders, AND that media in Britain, or the US, or Lichtenstein (strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “Western” media) should also be better, offering a fairer and more diverse picture of China, getting their facts right.

    Best,
    David

  5. Guo says:

    I agree with you and disagree with you. The agreed component: it is true that Chinese media is highly selective, and the current story is just one example. Disagreed: It is also true that this is exactly what US media does too, or in fact what the Western media does, at least when it relates to non-Western countries like China. For example, if 8 Tibetan supporters have a protest, it may become a big and huge story broad casted everywhere. But if there is 8000 Chinese students protesting against Dalai Lama, it can go unheard at all, unless you are on the scene. The difference is clear. The difference between Chinese media and Western media is 6 and half a dozen. They are all biased. So get used to it.

  6. Pffefer says:

    David,
    I’ve got several questions for you:

    (1) What do you mean by “media have been prevented from using anything but the official Xinhua News Agency release. That means we CAN ONLY look at placement, headline, headline size, etc., to determine the level of attention it was given by various media.”? Are you referring to the Chinese media or foreign(western) media? I can’t believe that western media were barred from using any materials they were able to find. Chinese media? Of course they are still tightly controlled by the Chinese government therefore it shouldn’t surprise you that much.

    (2) The reason why you think this incident should be over-reported seems to be because in your words: “Bachman’s case was a 1) murder (not a beating) 2) of a foreign national 3) on the first day of Olympic competition 4) in the host city, and CRUCIALLY 5) related to a U.S. Olympic team coach.” Of all the five I think only (1) and (5) are significant. The victim being a foreigner alone should not make to the front page and does not warranty tons of coverage . My question is, had the murder not met the above criteria do you think the newsworthiness is any less?

    (3) Everyone knows the Chinese media tend to underplay negative news and put a positive spin to it while western media love negative news and put a negative spin to everything (especially when the topic is China). It is just the way it is. They are quite different. Why are you surprised and to a certain extent, bothered by this? You can’t ask the Chinese media to be like the western media you can’t ask the western media to behave like the Chinese media.

  7. Matt says:

    I think the difference is the papers in the UK and US are privately owned and not controlled by government. Where all news in PRC is controlled and managed by the government.

  8. Yogi Bear says:

    Please, I have read a plethora of news articles on both the Zhao Yan and the Newcastle murder cases. I live in the US and I read about the Newcastle case the very next morning in a prominent news article and followed the trial involving the officers of Zhao Yan! To compare the two to the very biased and controlled news reporting in China is incredibly naive and laughable. The murder of the father-in-law of an olympic coach and critical injuries of his mother-in-law, on the day before his team was to play in the host city in the olympics, by a citizen of the country. THAT is big news and would be front page on most US newspapers if the olympics were here.

  9. [...] news in the Chinese media: How Saturday’s attack on the relatives of an American volleyball coach was covered domestically. [China Media [...]

  10. David says:

    Blogger812:

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. Ceviche and Putong are correct in pointing out that the Zhao Yan story and the Newcastle murder cases SHOULD get attention. Why shouldn’t the Bachman story?

    Professional news media should report news based on newsworthiness, and we should hold them up to a higher standard whether they are “Western” or “Chinese.” Clearly, you see this as an issue of US versus THEM. I would encourage you not to imagine journalism as a kind of Cold War standoff between narrow spheres of influence.

    Best,
    David

  11. Blogger812 says:

    Why can’t China, as they study the style of western reporting, also pick up some tricks used by western media as well? Downplaying news is done quite commonly by the western media. You can’t expect the Chinese media behave fairer than the free media of the west.

    Also, you can’t eliminate the possibility that the Chinese newspapers arrived at the conclusion themselves that this news is not as important as some foreign media makes it to be therefore do not deserve a prominent space.

  12. admin says:

    Putong and Ceviche:

    Thank you both for your comments. And you’ve raised a very valuable question.

    I want to emphasize, first of all, that both the stories you raise are very serious ones – and that neither case should be marginalized.

    However, both of you clearly misunderstand my point here about news relevance. The point is not that any story involving the murder (or beating, in Zhao Yan’s case) of a foreign national must instantly become front-page news.

    To look at the attention paid to a story you must also look at the amount of space devoted to it, the amount of reporting (did the paper put its own reporter on the case, for example), at how long the story remained a focus, etcetera. A crucial point to understand with Chinese “coverage” of the Bachman story is that media have been prevented from using anything but the official Xinhua News Agency release. That means we CAN ONLY look at placement, headline, headline size, etc., to determine the level of attention it was given by various media.

    When determining newsworthiness, let’s not forget that Bachman’s case was a 1) murder (not a beating) 2) of a foreign national 3) on the first day of Olympic competition 4) in the host city, and CRUCIALLY 5) related to a U.S. Olympic team coach.

    Ceviche, if you take even just a passing glance at coverage of the Newcastle case I think you’ll realize quickly just how off you are in your assumptions here. More than 200 articles on the case appeared in various British and Australian papers in the month surrounding the murders. I’ve pasted just a portion below, and you can see that plenty of papers gave the story rather prominent attention — pages 2 or 4 or 5. But the more important point is that they dispatch their own reporters and look into the larger implications of the brutal murder, for Chinese exchange students generally, etc.

    When you see numbers missing, this is where I’ve deleted unrelated articles that came up in my Lexis-Nexis keyword search.

    1.
    Chinese students suffered ‘gruesome’ death
    Daily Post (Liverpool), August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 15, 270 words
    2.
    Chinese pair die after ‘gruesome’ attack in flat
    The Independent (London), August 11, 2008 Monday, ADVERTISING; Pg. 12, 565 words
    4.
    Students in feat after Chinese nationals die; CRIME
    Birmingham Post, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 2, 173 words
    5.
    STUDENTS IN FEAR AFTER TWO MURDERS
    The Northern Echo, August 11, 2008, Pg. 1 03, 613 words, By Gavin Havery
    6.
    DETAILS DUE ON STUDENT DEATHS
    Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 8, 258 words
    7.
    DETAILS DUE ON STUDENT DEATHS
    Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 8, 258 words
    8.
    Student pair battered to death in flat
    Daily Mail (London), August 11, 2008 Monday, Pg. 11, 154 words
    9.
    Double murder probe reveals victims’ severe head injuries
    Belfast Telegraph, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 8, 518 words
    10.
    Students in fear following ‘gruesome’ deaths in flat; UK & WORLD
    The Western Mail, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 8, 522 words, Western Mail reporter
    11.
    National: Two Chinese students found dead in flat
    The Guardian (London) – Final Edition, August 11, 2008 Monday, GUARDIAN HOME PAGES; Pg. 5, 302 words, Martin Wainwright
    12.
    Double murder inquiry after students’ bodies found
    The Times (London), August 11, 2008 Monday, HOME NEWS; Pg.13, 170 words, Kevin Dowling
    13.
    Murdered Chinese couple ‘may have welcomed in their killer’
    The Times (London), August 12, 2008 Tuesday, HOME NEWS; Pg.5, 582 words, Andrew Norfolk
    14.
    Hunt for killer of Chinese students beaten to death
    The Express, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; 5, 400 words, By Ian Key
    16.
    Maximo?s red view
    The West Australian (Perth), April 19, 2007 Thursday, TOD; Pg. 8, 590 words, SIMON COLLINS
    17.
    UK murders `gruesome’
    Northern Territory News (Australia), August 12, 2008 Tuesday, WORLD; Pg. 10, 92 words
    18.
    Students in fear following ‘gruesome’ deaths in flat; UK & WORLD NEWS
    The Western Mail, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 8, 521 words, Western Mail reporter
    19.
    Battered Chinese pair ‘let in killer’
    The Sun (England), August 12, 2008 Tuesday, 196 words, Robin Perrie
    20.
    Murdered Chinese couple were high-flyinggraduates
    The Evening Standard (London), August 11, 2008 Monday, Pg. 24, 198 words, ROB SINGH
    22.
    Chinese students bludgeoned to death
    The Daily Telegraph (London), August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 8, 218 words, Richard Edwards Crime Correspondent
    23.
    We need a green card: MP; Workers fend for themselves over holidays
    The Sun Herald (Sydney, Australia), February 11, 2007 Sunday, HUNTER EXTRA; Pg. 1, 401 words, MICHAEL BLAXLAND
    24.
    Details to emerge on student deaths
    Belfast Telegraph, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 2, 225 words, TON WILKINSON
    25.
    Details to emerge on students’ death
    Belfast Telegraph, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 2, 225 words, TOM WILKINSON
    26.
    Dead students ‘respectable and hard-working’
    Daily Post (Liverpool), August 12, 2008 Tuesday, NEWS; Pg. 19, 476 words, TOM WILKINSON
    27.
    ALL WOK AND NO PAY AT CHINESE RESTAURANT
    The Northern Echo, July 5, 2007, Pg. 3, 209 words
    28.
    BATTERED TO DEATH IN THEIR BEDROOMS; CHINESE STUDENTS DIED FROM HEAD INJURIES
    The Mirror, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 15, 180 words, BY IAN KEY
    29.
    MURDERED STUDENTS ‘KNEW THEIR KILLER’
    Daily Record, August 12, 2008, Tuesday, NEWS; Pg. 10, 112 words
    30.
    NEWS IN BRIEF
    The Northern Echo, April 4, 2007, Pg. 34, 236 words
    31.
    BATTERED TO DEATH IN THEIR BEDROOMS; TWO STUDENTS FOUND DEAD
    The Mirror, August 11, 2008 Monday, NEWS; Pg. 11, 355 words, BY IAN KEY
    32.
    Chinese giveaway
    Daily Star, July 5, 2007 Thursday, NEWS; 11, 64 words
    33.
    Chinese giveaway
    Daily Star, July 5, 2007 Thursday, NEWS; 11, 64 words
    34.
    Chinese giveaway
    Daily Star, July 5, 2007 Thursday, NEWS; 11, 64 words
    35.
    English first aid for China Games
    The Daily Telegraph (Australia), April 8, 2008 Tuesday, LOCAL; Pg. 13, 168 words
    36.
    Scotland’s eastern, promising ties
    The Scotsman, August 24, 2007, Friday, Pg. 40, 788 words, Scott Reid Deputy Business Editor
    37.
    HORROR AS 2 STUDENTS ARE FOUND DEAD
    Daily Record, August 11, 2008, Monday, NEWS; Pg. 2, 99 words
    40.
    Police will ‘work round clock’ to catch killers of graduates murdered in their flat
    The Guardian (London) – Final Edition, August 12, 2008 Tuesday, GUARDIAN HOME PAGES; Pg. 9, 331 words, Martin Wainwright
    46.
    BRITAIN Double murder
    The Advertiser (Australia), August 12, 2008 Tuesday, FOREIGN; Pg. 25, 52 words
    47.
    CHILDREN LEARN DANCE DRAMA FROM CHINA
    The Northern Echo, November 18, 2006, Pg. 10, 125 words
    48.
    Murdered Chinese graduates came to Britain to improve their lives
    The Independent (London), August 12, 2008 Tuesday, NEWS; Pg. 4, 573 words, Jonathan Brown

  13. John Q Public says:

    The above two examples hopefully received the coverage they deserved, but even if they didn’t, how does that justify or make this example ok? Pointing out other (possible) wrongs to justify another wrong still isn’t adding up to a right.

    People obviously realize that this action by a single individual is in no way representative of Chinese people as a whole, but trying to play it off and bury the story, only makes Americans focus on it more. What an amazing “welcome to Beijing” the Bachmans have received.

  14. ceviche says:

    hmm…. David,

    As you know two chinese students were recently tortured and murdered in their flat in Newcastle, UK. Will you put some efforts to find out how many UK newspapers published it in the first page?

    cheers,

  15. putong says:

    I wonder how many US newspapers reported Zhao Yan’s incident in the 1st page…in case you never heard of it, she was a chinese biz woman, taking a tour in buffalo, and a couple of US cops beat the living shit out of her for fun. And guess what, the cops got acquitted.

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