Blogger: How Headlines Get Written in China

This post is not “news.” A Chinese blogger, who is apparently a working journalist using the online name “the large trend” (大势所趋) posted this experience on May 21, 2007. It reveals a few details about how the media works in China, so CDT translated the post here:

I was on duty in the newsroom one evening last year, when the news came that the State Council had taken disciplinary action against two deputy provincial governors. It was rare that the State Council recorded a serious demerit against such high-level provinicial officials. So my boss and I agreed that this story should be put on the front page of our paper.

How to write the headline? It was easy for me to come up with a headline if I was just concerned with journalistic rules. But I needed to consider what could be allowed under the censorship. I didn’t want to end up using a boring headline. So I asked my boss for his ideas. “Go write one yourself,” he said. That was an answer I expected. I proposed that we put the names of the officials in the headline, “Deputy Governor So-and-So was punished.” He instantly rejected the idea. So I took a step back, and suggested that we use it as a subtitle. He agreed. Finally the headline of the story was decided to be:

State Council Announces Punishment Decisions for Four Mining Accidents (headline)
—Deputy Govenor So-and-So was given a serious demerit (subtitle)

Actually the headline could be better, such as ” State Council Punishes Officials for Malpractice in Four Mining Accidents.” But I was lazy in typing, so didn’t bother to change the headline provided by the wire.

My boss is a sly guy. He is always cautious in being politically correct. Surprisingly, he approved the sensitive subtitle I proposed, in which the name of a high-ranking official was identified. He even gloated over it and exclaimed, “I guess they don’t dare to publish a subtitle like this.” He was referring to our competitor, another paper which is usually more brassy than us. I was glad that my effort was not in vain, and went back home after he signed off on the pages for printing.

The next morning when I saw my boss, I asked him how the competitor had written the headline for the story. “They did what you proposed, and have been disciplined for it,” he said nervously, and left in a hurry. I went inside my office and got to see the paper — it indeed had a large headline “Deputy Governor So-and-So was Given a Serious Demerit.” I then read our paper and found out that the sensitive subtitle was gone. It turned out that my boss eventually decided to play it safe and delete the subtitle, after I left the newsroom. He reasoned that we should not use it at all, since putting it in a subtitle could also bring us trouble.

I should say that he did the right thing. This is a small issue that is not worth a paper taking risks. Our competitor set the precedent of printing the name of a high-ranking official who had been punished in the headline. It did so in accordance with its audacious spirit. However, it’s predictable that the paper would pay a price for the act. Shortly afterward, the managing editor of the paper was summoned to a meeting, and was sternly admonished by a top official: “Is your paper still under the leadership of the Party?”

The managing editor had to present his already prepared scapegoat for such a situation. “The editor on duty for the story has been fired,” he replied.

November 2, 2008 10:08 PM
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