When The Journalist Plays The Lede

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No one ever knew Superman and Spiderman were journalists, and no one knew Clark Kent and Peter Parker were superheroes. But in real life it’s much easier for us to judge journalists who would be heroes. And when they’re from , they seem to invite an added measure of scrutiny. is known as China’s cradle of civilization, and more recently, of urban crime and AIDS villages; and now, to add the beleaguered province’s bad rap, of a mistrusted new culture of “performance journalism”.

Back in July, there was the case of the 23-year-old Henan TV reporter Cao Aiwen, hailed China’s “most beautiful female reporter” by Netizens after she was pictured administering mouth-to-mouth to a girl dredged from a flooded Yellow River. The province’s Communist Youth League honored her. But since Cao’s press badge was displayed front-and-center in the pics, some reporters and cybernauts began to wonder whether it wasn’t all some sort of publicity stunt (see CMP or ESWN).

Then in September, controversy embroiled another award winner, veteran journalist Bai Rundai of the Henan Commercial News. Bai was the only person willing to pay for life-saving treatment for an accused murderer who had turned the knife on himself. Then another section of the paper interviewed Bai about his Good Samaritanism, and he and his paper were charged with hyping a morally questionable crusade. (see our previous post).

Now, once again, death’s-door histrionics have prompted nationwide journalistic debate. The journalist under the microscope this time is He Yonggang (‰ΩïÊ∞∏Âàö), a cub reporter for cross-town competitor Jinri Anbao (‰ªäÊó•ÂÆâÊä•), a subsidiary of the Henan Daily Group. On Nov. 30, the 24-year-old paid a sick call to Liang Jinzhu, a peasant dying of bone cancer. Liang’s family had no money to pay for treatment, but a Zhengzhou hospital agreed to admit him free-of-charge after He Yonggang published stories about his plight. In those stories, Liang’s wife, eight-months pregnant, declared she would sell her kidney to keep her husband alive – or even her newborn baby. That day at the hospital, she threw herself to the floor in appreciation when He Yonggang and his supervisor handed her gifts including 100 yuan. Liang’s older brother buckled down beside her. Liang himself, though bedridden and heavily drugged, managed to bend over too. Then suddenly, He Yonggang, unable to rouse them, knelt down as well. For the next ten minutes, the reporter interviewed the family from his knees. And in the paper the next day, he swooned over it:

This one kneel showed the gratefulness and trust the masses feel toward the newspaper. This one kneel showed the deep feelings between the paper and its readers.

The paper has been parrying attacks regarding He’s motives ever since. And various media have created a big scene over whether the journalist created one or not….


The immediate question has been, did He Yonggang cross professional lines of objectivity? Not according to most Henanites, the paper contended. Within four days of the incident, among 6,000 respondents, more than 80 percent said they highly approved of his actions, a survey on the Dahe Online, the paper’s mother site, apparently showed. But the paper did note the opinion of one commentator who thought the reporter was “stealing the lead role and making a show.”

A Dec. 5 Zhengzhou Evening News piece about the online debate appears to have drawn national attention to the whole incident. It quoted He saying he felt compelled to kneel as a show of empathy and respect, especially since the patient’s brother was older than his own father. But by doing so, it cited another commentator saying, the journalist had lost respect for his story. Others quoted agreed He had gone too far. The Evening News used the controversy to launch into a sidebar analysis on the plaintive act of going down on one’s knees (‰∏ãË∑™), both traditionally and today, which flicks at spectacular cases in the news the past couple years.

But a deeper question is at play in the debate: is there an established line that cannot be crossed in China? The big-name newspapers taken a more cerebral approach. For them, the real issue was where the line between journalism and humanitarism (or activism) can and should be drawn, given the cracks in Chinese society.

An editorialist for Southern Metropolis Daily said that while he didn’t approve of He’s actions, he could understand them:

In recent years, kneeling incidents have occurred frequently. A very obvious fact therein is that people in positions of weakness are going down on their knees before the stronger. We often think that people are kneeling down out of disrespect for themselves. But essentially, it is caused by the imbalanced structure of power in society, and the unfair distribution of resources.

Shenyang’s Huashang Bao made the argument that desperate means require measures, making a favorable comparison between He and Cao Aiwen:

He Yonggang and Cao Aiwen are both reporters, and at the same moment when lives urgently needed to be saved, both, without prior consultation, chose to behave in ways suspected of transgressing boundaries. Toward such suspected transgressions, full of human care, how can people have the heart to stand at artificially established “high points of professionalism” and rationally question and cross-examine? In the face with human nature, any such questioning seems cheap and tasteless. The only rational attitude for us to have is respect for professionals’ expressions of leadership.

But in the China Youth Daily
, senior editor Xin Wen asked: “Have Chinese Journalists Entered the Age of Performance?”:

I don’t know based on what considerations journalists make these kinds of moves, but at minimum, the objective outcome of their actions is that journalists have become a lead player in news stories about helping the weak, to the extent that after one round of heated discussion after another, the original news – how to help the weak – is not important any longer, or has even been forgotten. Instead the reporter has become the centerpiece of public opinion, and in one instance after another, receives the focus and hype.

..The way public opinion has been shaped over the Internet, due the thirst for social equality and the arduousness of building a harmonious society, how to treat the weak has become the problem most capable of affecting society’s nerves. And certain news workers are very good at creating “moral and ethical dilemmas”, to pose some problems that stimulate the nerves of society, and thus make evident their own personal value and loftiness. That is also a social reason why some news workers constantly become the leading characters of the news.

…To create “moral dilemmas”, stimulate the nerves of society, and magnify one’s own loftiness and greatness, is an improper move that diverts the public’s attention. The journalist who becomes the leading character, to a certain extent, also abandons one’s personal responsibility, and loses sight of the facts the public should know and must know. This should arouse new workers’ reflection and vigilance.

December 10, 2006, 1:18 AM