Editing News and Misreporting News

Luqiu Luwei is a media worker with Phoenix TV.

(Rose Garden)  Editing News and Misreporting News.  June 26, 2007.

[in translation]

Last year, I went on leave from Phoenix TV to study in the United States.  On my last television program segment, I discussed the draft law (in China) in which fines would be imposed for reporting without permission any suddenly breaking incidents.  I invited media experts and foreign correspondents based in China to discuss.  Afterwards, my colleague telephoned me to say that the response was huge and the message reached the people who needed to know.

A year has passed and a draft proposal has been formally submitted to the National People's Congress' Standing Committee.  The article from before has been deleted, but a new article has been added about the prohibition against manufacturing or communicating false information concerning suddenly breaking incidents:

Any unit or individual must not manufacture and communicate false information about the developments in suddenly breaking incidents and actions taken in response, or communicating information known to be false about the developments in suddenly breaking incidents and actions taken in response.

It is easy to determine what 'manufacturing' is, but the 'communicating' part is harder.  The Internet is well-advanced nowadays.  If one media outlet reports the relevant information, the other media will not be left behind and they will immediately carry the news while stating the original source.  Most of the time, they will just take whatever they can lay their hands on.  All the stuff about confirming with a third source that we learned in school or else our forebears taught us at work have been tossed away.  We look for speed and we don't care about accuracy.  We look just to have news to report and we don't care about accuracy.  Most of the media, including myself and the company that I work for, do this to some degree.  The obvious consequence is that the quality of media professionalism is going to fall.

But when a media outlet is wrong, it will have to pay a price in that the readers will lose trust in it.  Eventually, it will start losing readers which in turn means that the advertisements will slowly dry up.  Without revenue, the media outlet cannot support itself and it will be eliminated.  If this logic is correct, the government does not even need to intervene.  All the government has to do is to present the facts and prove that the media were wrong.  Isn't that good enough?

To confirm a piece of news with a third party takes time and effort.  Most of the time, we say that the official Xinhua agency is taken as the standard.  This is because we know that the Xinhua agency is the official channel for releasing information.  Either the information is accurate, or else the government is deliberating covering up the truth.  In the latter case, if we cite the Xinhua information, we obviously do not have any responsibility.

Alternately, we cite information from agencies such as Associated Press and Reuters, because there organizations have built up public trust and they will pay a tremendous cost if they make a mistake.  For that reason, they are very careful when they release their information.

Of course, the most effective thing is to have our own reporters down in the front lines. 

The special characteristic of suddenly breaking incidents is that changes occur as the case unfolds.  Even the people who are in the middle of the incident itself will be receiving confusing information.  I feel that it is unfair to punish the media afterwards for reporting inaccurate information under those circumstances.  Isn't it enough to confirm the information with reliable sources, or report what one has personally witnessed?

As for individuals, I don't think that it is necessary to have such strict regulations on the contents of one's blog or the information passed along via SMS on the mobile telephone.  These modes of communications are just modern extensions of communication.  In the past, you communicate face to face.  Later you use the telephone.  Nowadays, it is the Internet.  In order for personally released information to become reported news, the media need to verify and confirm.  If the media proceed to report without doing so, then the responsibility is that of the media and not of the individual.  

It is a minimum professional and ethical requirement for the media not to report hearsay.  By contrast, exchanging rumors and communicating them to others is part of the daily lives of individuals.  There is an ancient Chinese saying: Rumors stop with the wise people.  The government only needs to raise the quality of the people and improve the ability of people to judge the accuracy of information and to tell right or wrong.  When there are many wise people, this whole problem can be solved at the root source, right?

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