The Secret Life of Keywords: Online and Database Searches a Reporting Tool

By Gang, Qian | Nieman Reports, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

The Secret Life of Keywords: Online and Database Searches a Reporting Tool


Gang, Qian, Nieman Reports


I became a journalist in 1979. Back in those days, two basic skills were required of any journalist: reporting and writing. Three decades later, in an era of dramatic technological changes, these basic skills alone are no longer sufficient. Journalists now require a third basic skill: They must learn how to mine important facts and trends from the mountains of information all around them.

It was 1991 before I used a computer for the first time. We called this "giving up the pen, which simply meant you exchanged your pen for a keyboard and mouse. It was around that time too that I heard about an ambitious project to carry out computerized analysis on the "Dream of the Red Chamber," a work of classical Chinese literature. The idea was to arrive at different speech patterns among various characters in the novel by mapping the frequency of different types of utterances.

Ten years later, in 2001, I was serving as the deputy managing editor of Southern Weekly, a relatively young commercial newspaper that had carved out a reputation as a more freewheeling publication. That year, unfortunately, a number of our reports fell afoul of Communist Party censors. After I was removed as editor, I accepted an invitation for a fellowship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, just over the border. It was in Hong Kong that I stumbled across complete historical archives on disc of the Party's official People's Daily and the People's Liberation Army Daily. I was quickly obsessed. I used the archives to hone my search skills, analyzing coverage in these two papers before and during the Cultural Revolution. The result was a full-length paper called, "The Emergence and Transformation of Red Political Terms."

This experience was entirely new. In the past, relying purely on manual analysis, it had been virtually impossible to accurately determine how phrases like "Mao Zedong Thought" or "dictatorship of the proletariat'--terms that had had a deep impact on the course of the Cultural Revolution--had been used over time. Now, computer technology made it possible to enter a simple keyword and arrive at these results almost instantly. All at once, the numbers hidden within a sea of language revealed themselves.

In 2003, I moved to the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, where we established the China Media Project, a special research initiative for the systematic study of Chinese media. The SARS epidemic struck soon after, testing a new generation of media that had emerged in China since the middle of the 1990s--commercial newspapers and magazines seeking market success and professional relevance even under stringent propaganda controls. In the early stages, as the epidemic was taking hold, there were reports in Chinas media. But bans on coverage soon followed, and at a time when public health information was most critical, Chinese media were woefully silent. That year, we pioneered the use of news databases such as WiseNews to provide the most accurate picture possible of the pattern of reporting (and silence) in China's media during the epidemic.

Analysis of this kind is no longer a purely academic pursuit. It can help provide essential context and background for coverage of all sorts, in China and beyond. …

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