Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Domestic Chinese Journalism

On my flights home from Indonesia, I picked up a couple English language newspapers at transfer points in China. The journalism was a disappointment: void of analysis, vague, and weak. I found the writing full of high school level errors and several times cried out or threw the papers down in disgust. This is not what I expected in a translation of the advanced Chinese language TV news broadcasts of my childhood and of my dad's satellite state television.

A friend who enjoyed a current production of Nixon In China (1987) pointed out that it made only limited attempt to portray the expanse of cultural difference across which the Chinese characters would have experienced those scenes. Without trying to verify this by watching the opera I'll take the observation as fuel for pursuing an explanation for what I perceive as intolerable journalism.

One might consider state control of media to be a limiting factor on how compelling or critical content may be. Take this example, however, of an award-winning investigative article on a case of corporate environmental degradation with serious community impacts. Mind, the award is a joint project of The Guardian and two NGOs. While reading it from the safety of my dining room table it flashed me back to the literature- and internet-starved hours in flight with its headless, tailless, insubstantial paragraphs randomly organized under directionless headers. Even the concluding paragraph leaves me wondering what the heck a reader is to conclude:
Yang Yongsheng said that the village hasn't had any contact with the factory and that no monetary value has been placed on the harm caused by the pollution. Meanwhile, Lu Shaofei of Qilin district's environmental authority said that compensation has not yet been discussed. The next step, he said, would be to engage a qualified agency to assess the damages. The government hasn't yet issued a verdict on the case. Although chromium pollution is extremely serious, in this instance it was dealt with quickly, and there were no human casualties.
The short of it is, these articles fail the So What? test. But what does this teach us about how Chinese communicate or what they expect from media? Ancillary to my question is the effectiveness of English language education to speakers of other languages. Fluency creates confusion or even provocation if applied with culturally inappropriate persuasive methods. 

A Fulbright scholar who taught journalism at an international program in China argues that asserting Western fact-checking techniques within the limiting context of state controlled media may create a mutually conversant international discourse. I cringe at assumptions that Western Europe-origin methods are "higher" or universally more true or applicable than other existing ones, but since white America hasn't budged, the burden of multi-method-ism is on the rest of us.

If we can't understand each other, we can't trust the other to have beneficent intentions. 

PS My next $10 donation is going to the purchase of this collection of eight groundbreaking cases of "watchdog journalism" between 1990 and 2003. If the third-person rewrites are anything like the introduction, it promises to be a more satisfying read than my examples above. Further, there are splashy precedents such as Liu Binyan's People or Monsters (1978) in the driving baogao wenxue style. I'm on it.

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