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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.