Why our news is empty

Why our news is empty
Why our news is empty
Posted on 2010-12-16

News reporter Yan Bingguang (颜秉光) was fired by China’s official Xinhua News Agency this week after she was found to have used her own relatives as sources in a number of news reports. The scandal began, as so many scandals in China now do, on the Internet, as web users subjected Yan’s reports to scrutiny and the allegations were followed up by her employer.

Yan has now become something of a sensation on China’s internet. Web users have compiled the whole series of news reports she wrote using her own relatives as her chief news sources, and Yan has been dubbed China’s “greatest journalist,” a title obviously granted in jest.

Faking news stories is of course not altogether new, but Yan’s case is certainly an exceptional one. Her habitual use of her own family members as source material has been laid out, plain for all to see, by Internet users. The scandal, though comic in its overall effect, should really get us thinking.

As Xinhua News Agency and many web users have read this case, Yan Bingguang’s conduct stems from poor professional ethics and a lack of regard for media credibility. The work of the journalist is largely the work of conscience. Those who aren’t interested in the public’s right to know or in social justice would do best to stay clear of this profession. And yet, as it happens, our profession is full of the crooked and the shifty. It’s only that many journalists are more clever than Yan Bingguang in concealing their crimes.

Much of the anger being vented over Yan’s conduct is actually the product of festering frustration over the quality of news coverage in our country. I still remember how, in 2008, Xinhua News Agency reported in detail on the successful launch of the Shenzhou 7 rocket, which had not yet occurred. And reporters have been jailed before in China for attempting to extort money from companies or individuals.

The reports from Yan Bingguang that have come under scrutiny don’t deal with sensitive political issues. They report information about the trifling details of life — kids going on holiday, the weather changing in Harbin, family reunion dinners and the like. Why did she do this? The answer, obviously, is that she wanted to do her job in the most basic sense, by successfully filing stories.

But the more important question is how she was able to do what she did. How was her conduct able to continue without raising alarms from other editors or reporters? It is certainly an indictment of how the entire editorial system works that web users were able so easily to lay out a record of Yan Bingguang’s longstanding deception [while her employer apparently noticed nothing]. In this case, the system clearly failed the test.

In fact, not all of Yan Bingguang’s reports were fabrications. Perhaps it could even be said that the majority of them were truthful. web users were able to get a handle on what she was doing precisely because her family members appeared repeatedly in her reports under their real names. Put all together, her news reports read like a diary of family life. Web users have poked fun at her, saying that her husband has now become a nationwide media darling, thanks to her reports and the ensuing scandal], even though he’s nothing but an ordinary teacher.

This comical result comes about precisely because Yan Bingguang’s reports preserve a great deal of truth. How different would these reports be if the names had been changed to “Mr. Wang,’ “Miss Li” and “Grandma Zhao”? They wouldn’t be much different at all. The question is why these trifling records of ordinary life have been transformed again and again into news?

Of course journalists should be attuned to the mundane details of life. But if the quotidian life of an ordinary citizen becomes the routine focus of news reports outside the context of more significant and newsworthy issues, we must ask tougher questions about why this is happening.

To put a finer point on it, another key reason why these news reports on Yan Bingguang’s family life were able to escape notice and censure is precisely because they dealt with vapid and insignificant issues [and were therefore unlikely to cause trouble]. [NOTE: Chang's implication here is that editor's at Xinhua were so preoccupied in looking for political red flags that they were blinded to ethical and professional ones.]

What issues did Yan’s reports deal with at all? How could she file so many banal reports?

Read Yan Bingguang’s reports carefully, then think of many of the images we see on our television sets, and the reason becomes clear. The bulk of what we see is empty and superficial. When Chinese New Year rolls around, we hear about how happy the people are this year; when it snows, we hear about how this promises a fruitful year to come; or, in a dramatic departure from the focus all the rest of the year [i.e., Party and government leaders] we are treated to gestures of solicitude for the welfare of the ordinary people.

We see the same reports every year, repeated endlessly. They don’t require that journalists go and do real reporting, and there are so many journalists who turn to those near and dear to accommodate this appetite for empty news. And so long as such reports persist, it will make little difference that a single Yan Bingguang has been fired from her news post.

This editorial originally appeared in Chinese at Oriental Daily. Some points have been clarified, such as the fact that the premature report on the Shenzhou 7 mission in 2008 was by Xinhua News Agency.

One Comment to “Why our news is empty”

  1. Andrea says:

    Interesting insights into the “scandal”. China’s media censorship definitely does not make a journalist’s life easy. In a country where relationships are more often than not crucial to professional succession, it seems that Yan Bingguang was simply calling upon the only resources she could find – her family. Other journalists are essentially doing the same, except with a broader network of info sources. Yan’s stories weren’t untruthful, just unnewsworthy… exemplary of what you call “empty news”… but what can you expect in a communist country. The real problem lies within stringent government regulation and if Yan reported on that she’d also face consequences. It’s a lose-lose situation.

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