Reporting the Disaster in China

The General Administration of Press and Publications has issued a circular calling on the media to do a “good job” in reporting on the Sichuan earthquake. According to Xinhua:

The circular ordered media to deliver disaster relief information to the public, send care and encouragement of the Party and the government to victims, provide information service for victims, in a bid to enhance their confidence and courage to overcome the disaster.

Local governments should take care of reporters, and support them to file in-depth stories about disaster relief work, as well as cracking down on fabricated reports.

Because it is rare for Chinese journalists to be encouraged by the government to “file in-depth stories” about domestic disasters, natural or otherwise, the foreign press corps is weighing in. From an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Peter Herford:

What made China decide to give the world an inside view of this tragedy and, more important, give the Chinese people the details of a story that would have been controlled in the past?

Theories abound. Coverage of the riots that began in Tibet this spring was carefully managed in Chinese media. The demonstrations that followed the Olympic torch around the world were invisible in Chinese media, and the country’s image suffered. That experience may have prompted national leaders to show a compassionate face and move quickly to help after the earthquake.

…The earth is shifting in China in more ways than geologic.

See also an AP report, which points out that while the media coverage of the quake and its aftermath is unprecedented, some constraints are still visible:

Officials have not fully unshackled the often tightly controlled media. Reports are emphasizing the government’s rapid, full-scale response over grieving and sometimes angry survivors. And the fact that the earthquake was a natural — rather than manmade — disaster may have played a role in journalists being set loose.

And at China Media Project, David Bandurski reports that propaganda officials have issued “numerous” directives on the reporting of the earthquake, including an order to avoid “critical” reports.

Still, there is some cautious optimism that the current loosening of the strings could lead to longer term reforms in the domestic media. From Radio Australia:

It’s too soon to judge whether the government’s more open attitude in dealing with this tragic event is a sign of more freedom to come for the media. The earthquake was of such a magnitude that it could not possibly have been covered up, and the government may feel that honesty was the best policy in this instance. That could change if the death toll continues to rise and public anger mounts over such issues as shoddy construction that some feel was facilitated by official corruption.

See also “Reporting Bad News in China” from US News and World Report.

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