Why Western Media Mistakes Matter

DISCLAIMER: Please read every word of this post carefully before commenting. Also, be aware that the post may be edited to address criticisms posed in the comments. Our hope is that this post will serve as our default explanation for any further questions on the topic, and as such, want to address any criticisms you might have.

Every time we post something critical of a story in the Western media — which, for the record, isn’t that often, about 20 posts of our total 197 — this question gets asked. Yesterday it was commenter Hemulen, who phrased it thusly:

I don’t understand why you spend so much time criticizing Western media for not getting everything exactly right and being 100 per cent accurate.

It’s a valid question, or at least, one to which the answer might not be readily apparent. After all, the Chinese media routinely commits graver ethical sins as a matter of policy. Shouldn’t we be going after them, instead?

Why not attack the Chinese media?

I believe we don’t need to. First of all, the Chinese media “bias” is generally the result of institutional (government mandated or suggested) restrictions. Thus, criticizing Chinese journalists doesn’t serve a lot of purpose. Their mistakes, inaccuracies, etc. are often unavoidable because of the political system they work within. It’s no coincidence that many of us get our Chinese-language China news from blogs rather than the mainstream Chinese media; bloggers are capable of operating outside that system.

That brings us to the second reason why criticizing the Chinese domestic media is pointless: everyone already knows the Chinese media is biased in favor of China. Most people — even Western laypeople — know why, too, so pointing out errors in Xinhua reports is, we feel, a waste of our time. It’s sort of like seeing a horse then writing a blog post about how horses have four legs. True, yes, undeniably true, but does anyone care? No, because everyone already knows that.

Do Western media mistakes on China really matter?

Of course, none of that fully explains why we should care about the mistakes the so-called “Western media” (a ridiculous term that we‘re using here only for the sake of convenience) makes when they’re reporting on China. Does it really matter whether or not the Guardian, for example, tacks a misleading headline onto what looks like a fairly poorly-researched story?

We believe it does, assuming that you agree with the idea that mutual understanding between the West and China is good for the world and is something both countries should be actively pursuing. We hold that lazy, sensationalist, or just plain bad journalism in the West serves to further alienate both sides.

First, it negatively affects Western readers who aren’t inclined to dig deeper into Chinese issues than reading the occasional headline in the daily paper or online. At best, it leads them to infer things that are incorrect, at worst, it presents lies to them as fact. Taking the Guardian article as an example, most people who read that headline are going to picture Chinese secret police bursting into a monastery and shooting four monks. That image is partially a result of stereotypes, and partially a result of the Guardian’s poor choice of wording. They can’t be blamed for the stereotypes, but they could certainly have worded their headline more accurately. The New York Times’ headline for their story on the same piece of news was far more nuanced and, as a result, isn’t likely to deepen people’s convictions that China is an evil country.

But these misleading articles, headlines, captions, etc., harm international relations and understanding in another way. They provide fuel for CCP propagandists, fenqing, and anyone with a patriotic streak and a modem to argue that the West is a monolithic entity with a vested interest in seeing China fail. These stories are used as evidence that Western freedom of speech doesn’t lead to more capable reporting. That isn’t true, of course, but if you’re a Chinese person who doesn’t read English and you see new posts on Anti-CNN every day that are full of reports of the Western media lying about China, what conclusion are you going to come to?

Regardless of your political bent, mutual alienation is unproductive. Most foreign critics of the Chinese government are, at this point, aware that things in China probably aren’t going to change until Chinese people want them to change, no matter how many protests foreigners hold on foreign soil. Many Chinese people are annoyed enough by the things they see on Anti-CNN or reported in the mainstream Chinese media to ignore any criticism that comes from the West, even those that have legitimate factual basis (and such criticisms are many). Thus, Western media mistakes on China hurt the credibility of Western critics and journalists generally. It may not be fair that that’s the way things are, but make no mistake — that is the effect it has. Isn’t that an effect we, as Westerners with a vested interest in mutual understanding, want to prevent?

It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf. If we write stories implying the Chinese government has executed innocent protesters, and don’t even include the Chinese perspective (i.e., that the people executed were rioters, and possibly murders themselves), then, in the future, if the government actually does execute innocent protesters — and who’s to say they won’t — foreign media reports of the incident will be ridiculed as biased lies and ignored. What’s more, past reports of government malfeasance are also undermined. A Chinese reader who sees the Western media lying about the Tibetan riots in 2008 isn’t going to be very likely to believe Western reports about Tiananmen in 1989, despite the fact that those reports are, by and large, wholly accurate.

Aren’t there much bigger problems?

Some might argue that it is Chinese people’s attitudes that need to change; they should forgive the occasional journalistic error, especially given that foreigners are often given even less access that their Chinese colleagues. Others would argue that the elephant in the room — the Chinese government — is the ultimate cause of all of these problems and that their past mistakes are often the original source of Western biases and inaccuracies. Those things are true, but they aren’t things that we in the West can control. We give them plenty of coverage on this blog, but every now and then, we like to criticize Western mistakes too.

0 thoughts on “Why Western Media Mistakes Matter”

  1. “Maybe you should learn Chinese before you made the above comments”

    No need. I have no difficulties understanding or posting on Chinese language forums if I so choose.


  2. Hemulen,

    Next time you want to criticize bias in Western media, people might not listen anymore.

    Please avoid speaking on behalf of “the people”.

    Accept the fact that different Western newspapers will cover different stories in different ways, and fenqings will always find fault with Western coverage of China.

    What has Custer said that suggests that he doesn’t accept the fact that different Western newspapers will cover different stories in different ways? Next, what is the value of a statement like “fenqings will always find fault with Western coverage of China.” That’s an empty statement to me, right up there with “foreigners will always find fault with China”. It does little to contribute to the discussion other than to insult Custer as a fenqing or apologist for fenqing by association.

    your failure to deal with oppression in Tibet. That is the elephant in this room, as far as I am concerned. If you were an outspoken critic of PRC policies of Tibet, I think many people like me would be willing to cut you some slack when you criticize Western media bias on Tibet.

    Yes, as far as you are concerned. Please start a blog and write to your heart’s content about the elephant in your room, about the oppression in Tibet. Please remember that a person doesn’t have to be an outspoken critic of something in order to be a critic of that thing. Demanding that Custer be an outspoken critic of PRC policies in Tibet before you, and people like you, are willing to cut him some slack when he criticizes Western media bias on Tibet sounds, to me, more like a demand for edification of your subjective interests and opinions. Why conflate the two when there is legitimacy in the criticisms of both?

    Demanding that Custer be an outspoken critic of one thing before you’re willing to listen to another thing speaks more about narrow-minded self-interest than a reasonable person genuinely interested in any discussion of merit.


    Although people are acutely aware (as Custer points out) of the level of censorship and propaganda in China, the Chinese often fail to realise how much their attitudes are still shaped by it. If that wasn’t the case they wouldn’t buy so readily into the ‘western bias’ spin campaign.

    How is this statement any more significant than the statement, “Westerners often fail to realize how much their attitudes are still shaped by the level of propaganda and bias in the Western media. If that wasn’t the case, they wouldn’t buy so readily into the ‘China evil’ spin campaign”?

    What are you trying to do with this? That the Chinese should “realize” it? That Westerners should “realize” that about the Chinese? How is this different from Custer’s statements trying to help Westerners “realize” that which they themselves don’t realize?

    You fail to appreciate that knowledge of the disease isn’t in itself enough to prevent infection.

    Indeed. I don’t think the ability to throw out these nifty metaphors is enough to prevent infection either.

    A lot of these debates would be far more productive if we stop being intellectually lazy and try dismissing each other’s arguments and points as a product of their “agenda” and “brainwashing”. Focus more on the facts and reasoning. If you want the other side to acknowledge a good point you make, start by acknowledging the good points they make. Find the common ground and work from there. I believe this is good advice for all of us.


  3. “How is this statement any more significant than the statement…”

    Because it intuitively makes more sense in the context of a state controlled media.
    A question of degree, I suppose.


  4. @ Kai your comment sees a bit over the top…
    Hemulen used a “might” and it seems that here everyone is speaking on behalf of the people, be it Chinese, western or else (if any).


  5. Xinjiang is a Uighur “province”,

    Learn some history, [no personal attacks! Learn to play nice, or you can’t play at all. You’ve been warned about this before. -ed.]. The Uighur didn’t even exist until around 500 AD. The Han already dominated Eastern Xinjiang (which was empty) by 60 BC… get a clue.


  6. @Kai

    I’m aghast, I didn’t think you were capable of this. “Narrow-minded self-interest”, “insult”… And where did I demand anything?


  7. kailing,

    Granted. I’ll give him Hemulen the benefit of the doubt on that one, though I still think his pseudo-threat was unwise. Anything else about my comment seem a bit over the top to you?


    Do you like it when people accuse Chinese people of part of the wu mao dang? Focus less on presumed agenda. It’s much wiser to tackle and argue the actual points.


  8. No need. I have no difficulties understanding or posting on Chinese language forums if I so choose.

    then you should know how those chinese advocates of free speech are intolerate of different opinions.


  9. @Kai

    Pseudo-threat? What on earth are you talking about?! You are reading my remarks way out of context. I think that Custer is overreacting to a headline by making it representative of what he calls “flagrant misrepresentation”. I don’t think Western media misrepresentation is the biggest problem in China (or Tibet for that matter) and focusing on it detracts from more important debates. I think I have a right to say that without being accused of threatening or insulting someone.


  10. @ Hemulen: No one said Western media misrepresentation was the biggest problem in China or Tibet. Like I said in the article, posts about that account for less than 10% of our total posts, that hardly seems like focusing on it to me.


  11. @Custer

    I haven’t done the numbers, but I guess that more than 50 percent of your posts of Tibet have been devoted to criticizing DL and debunking the ideas of the “Free Tibet” crowd. Perhaps we see thing completely different and this is your blog, but I don’t think that now is not the right moment to go tough on the Tibetans, it’s unbecoming to say the least, given increasing repression in Tibet the past two years. But that’s the world we live in these days. Tibet is regarded as a nuisance by most of the China crowd…


  12. @ Hemulen: As far as I know, I’ve never written a post criticizing the Dalai Lama. I’ve certainly written a few critical of the Free Tibet crowd (or at least part of it, not the Tibetan part though). Then, of course, there’s the pieces like this that I’ve translated, or this sharply sarcastic piece I did criticizing the CCP’s “serf liberation day”.

    Somehow, those posts never come up in these conversations though. Huh…

    The truth is, I’m not some Tibetan hating monster, nor do I consider Tibet a nuisance. I just genuinely disagree with you on the best way of resolving the situation there. Not sure why that’s so hard to stomach…


  13. @Custer

    I missed that Woeser post, we need more of that! The Freed Tibet crowd or Western media can be annoying, but they are mostly harmless. Belated happy one year birthday, BTW.


  14. Another article exhibiting typical Western racism and bias:


    China executes Tibetan protesters

    It identified three of the executed Tibetans as two men – Lobsang Gyaltsen and Loyak – and a woman named Penkyi. The fourth victim was not named.

    Muslim-German-Russian protesters executed.

    Recently Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were found dead, murdered by US agents. A fourth victim remains unidentified.


  15. Hemulen,

    You said to Custer…

    Seriously, you need to drop this and admit that you overreacted to the Guardian headline.

    …before telling him what the consequences are:

    Next time you want to criticize bias in Western media, people might not listen anymore.

    I interpreted that as a pseudo-threat. I understand your frustration, but I don’t think my interpretation is “way out of context”. Maybe I’m taking your words far more seriously than you are and, like I said, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

    I don’t think Western media misrepresentation is the biggest problem in China (or Tibet for that matter) and focusing on it detracts from more important debates.

    Which is a perfectly fine opinion for you to have. Like I said, go start a blog and write up a storm about what you think are the “more important debates.” Custer obviously feels Western media bias is an important issue, who are you to tell him otherwise, much less demand that he write otherwise? What is important to you is not necessarily important or as important to others.

    I don’t think an honest consideration of Western media bias detracts from any other debate at all. I can hold more than one thought in my head. Why do you feel it detracts from other debates? Can’t we humbly recognize the facts wherever they are? Why must mentioning one fact be denounced as detracting from another fact?

    I think I have a right to say that without being accused of threatening or insulting someone.

    You do have a right to say THAT. In fact, you have the right to say what I objected to earlier (and quoted at the top of this comment). I just don’t see THAT and the earlier quote as the same thing. The earlier quote is you telling Custer to either drop what he cares to write about or risk losing an audience. The latter is you simply expressing your own personal priorities, not imposing them on Custer. Do you see the difference?

    We’re all liable to get ahead of ourselves when we talk, myself included. I just felt your earlier statement was overstepping. I have no qualms with you having different priorities, but I don’t think it is easy to argue that others should abide, edify, or reinforce your priorities. I feel you’re doing much of the latter.


  16. http://blogs.ngm.com/blog_central/2009/11/editors-note-uncommon-courage.html

    Even National Geographic got into the act of posting propaganda. It noted of some brave woman who took a cell phone picture of 2 ‘protesters’ before they got by the Chinese police. It even have a colorful story like this:

    Writer Matthew Teague photographed these Uygur men, advancing upon Chinese forces, moments before they were shot.

    Many people carry cameras these days. Some have uncommon courage. On page 36 of this issue, in the story “The Other Tibet,” there is a photograph taken with a cell phone. The photographer was not a professional. She was a Uygur woman who documented the shooting of a Uygur man by Chinese security forces on a street in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang region. She later gave the picture to National Geographic’s photographer Carolyn Drake.

    Like their Tibetan neighbors, the Uygurs have a history of struggle, but when Carolyn began covering them more than a year ago, she had no idea that the conflict would explode into one of China’s most deadly uprisings since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. By June of this year, she thought her coverage was finished; she returned home to Istanbul. Then hints of unrest began to filter back to her. “At first I didn’t realize the severity of it. I started sending emails to my translator and friends in Kashgar, Hotan, and Urumqi, but no one responded.” She anxiously searched news sources, but the picture of what was going on seemed incomplete and unclear. There was only one way to fi nd out: return to China. She did so in July.

    Carolyn, writer Matthew Teague, and a Uygur woman with a cell phone camera all took great risks to bring us the story of a struggle for human rights. Many people carry cameras these days. Sometimes they help us find the truth.

    But if you look at the picture and the circumstances of why almost 200 people died at around that time, you may not think it is a ‘human rights’ issue.


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