Chinese JSR (Journalistic Social Responsibility)??

Here’s yet another stir-fried tale of muckraking that has begged (and somewhat blurred) the ethical question of the hour: is the system to blame, or the journalists?

For the past few weeks, Sohu.com has been polling readers opinions’ in the case of Bai Rundai. The senior investigative journalist for the Henan Commercial News, a six-time winner of the province’s highest prize for reporting, became the subject of his own story in August after he volunteered to cover the cost of one man’s life-saving treatment. His beneficiary? A suspected murderer named Guo Baoshang, who on July 25 allegedly stabbed to death a married couple during a drunken fit, and then turned the knife on himself. Even Guo’s family didn’t want to pay to prolong his life, partly because they were sure he’d get the death penalty; interviewed at the hospital, his estranged wife also portrayed him as a deadbeat dad. Local police and civil affairs officials were not legally bound to help the accused culprit either, Bai was told. He wrote an editorial about it, entitled: “A criminal suspect approaches death; why no one will pick up the bill.”

The piece emerged on July 28, and later that evening, 38 hours after the hospital ceased treating Guo – in keeping with its rules for bills exceeding 10,000 yuan – Bai decided to pay the 2000 yuan (US$250) tab to resume his care. According to the account that ran about two weeks later in the China Youth Daily, Dai told a cub journo at that moment:

“Suspected criminals are people too! Although he’s blamed for a homicide, only the law may decide if he dies; how can we stand by watching with eyes wide-open as he waits to die before he’s even been tried?”

The trouble for Bai started, curiously, only after reporters from another section of his own paper interviewed him. Their first piece, which ran on August 1, recounted his Good Samaritan deed. But the next day’s article was sexier: “A reporter’s 2000 yuan to rescue a suspected murderer triggers controversy.”

The trail of news about Guo himself soon dried up. As of the last report, posted to an online charity news channel connected to Buddhist Web site in early September, he was still in hospital, still a suspected murderer.

From early August on, Chinese media debate pivoted instead on Bai. Sohu’s package began with an editor’s note that summed it up thusly: “Some people say Bai Rundai’s behavior is worthy of approval; but some people say he’s putting on a show (zuo xiu ‰ΩúÁßÄ).”

Among dozens of press filings about Bai, China Youth Daily‘s appeared the most thorough. In it, Bai defended his motives: “It’s going to take a long time to make up for the holes between government and society,” he argued, “but life has dealt Guo Baoshang such a short time.” The paper also noted Bai’s track record defending the downtrodden; after a string of reports three years earlier, for example, he was credited with single-handedly securing new housing for villagers who’d been living in “animal pens” in outer Zhengzhou. But further down, the story quoted a Zhengzhou official who labeled Bai out-of-line and unrealistic: “There are so many poor kids out of school in the countryside who need financial assistance from the government even the nine-year old daughter left behind by the couple who Guo Baoshang murdered, she’s still waiting for government help too.”

Bai took a fair amount of ridicule, particularly on blog and BBS sites. But newspapers from Yunnan to Shanghai exalted him a humanitarian. Interviewed by Sohu, Bai said that when their daily mission comes in conflict with morality, journalists “should put their social duty and responsibility first.” So far, the results of the survey have come down one-sidedly in his favor: 64 percent of respondents thought he committed a “magnaminous act”, 25 percent said he was “hyping himself.” Of course, there were only 911 respondents.

Which suggests the possibility that the press, beginning with the Henan Commercial News, blew his story out of proportion from the get-go. But if that’s the case, it’s understandable. It speaks to growing debt of tears journalists shed for criminals when the justice system won’t.

Since last year, there have been quite a few instances much better publicized than Bai’s. Fujian radio host Xiang Fei kindly coaxes fugitives into confessing (link). Columnists oozed unprecedented sympathy for convicted killer Wang Binyu

and the wrongly imprisoned murder convict She Xianglin.

In some of these imbroglios, the journalists seem to become a bigger part of the story – one way or another, rightly or wrongly – when the system can no longer take the heat.

Biganzi called a senior news editor at Sohu about the case and asked him why Sohu made such a big deal over Bai. The editor blankly responded: “I’m not clear, either.”