In China, a New and Profitable Journalism Emerges

By Nolan, Webster K. | Nieman Reports, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

In China, a New and Profitable Journalism Emerges


Nolan, Webster K., Nieman Reports


With profit comes change questions about future direction.

Remarkable changes are taking lace in the news media in China, but they are not getting much attention elsewhere in the world. Journalists in China grow up in a culture that expects the news media to serve the interests of the government. Traditionally, they have seen their job in terms not only of reflecting government policy--they would call this "educating the public"--but also helping maintain social stability and promoting economic growth.

Whether or not in their private thoughts they are concerned about the arrests of political dissidents, many journalists have lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, or they have heard their parents talk about the misery it brought. They do not want to see their country go through that kind of turmoil again. In other words, their concerns about the need to maintain stability are real and ingrained.

What does this mean to Chinese journalists? For them, getting to the scene of a flood or a plane crash as fast as possible is not as important as reporting what is being done by the government to battle the flood or improve the safety of air travel. Journalists in China are not trained to seek out the dramatic, controversial, suspect or contradictory elements in a story.

But this tradition is slipping away. Listen carefully to a growing number of journalists in China and you'll hear a recurrent theme, expressed cautiously and variously, but the thrust is pretty much the same: "We want to be good journalists. We don't want to overthrow the government or start a revolution. We just want to report the news."

Where do they get these new ideas? Well, a lot of them have traveled and studied in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere in the West. Others frequently read American, British and other newspapers and magazines, or they spend time on the Internet. Over the years a considerable number of Western journalists have also gone to China to train writers, reporters and producers. All of these activities have produced some lasting friendships between American and Chinese journalists. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many of the top Chinese journalists are eager to send their staff to the West for training, and this certainly implies some kind of endorsement, perhaps even admiration, of the Western approach to news.

But admiration is certainly not universal. Like many Americans, many Chinese are troubled about certain aspects of American news reporting, particularly sensationalism, invasion of privacy, ambush journalism and so on. It's equally important to note that the Chinese see what has happened to the news media in Russia, and they want to avoid the blatant partisanship and tabloid mentality that plagues so much of journalism in that country.

In China, some journalists, particularly in the south and the coastal areas, chafe at restrictions imposed by Beijing, especially the requirement that they must wait for the Xinhua News Agency version of certain kinds of stories, even breaking stories like the devastating floods last winter in southern China. (Xinhua is the government-operated wire service.) what's interesting about this is that their complaint is not so much political as professional, that is to say, they think they can do a better job, get better quotes and details and pictures, than Xinhua.

A Marketplace Press Emerges

But for all their desire to "just be good reporters," it's unlikely that journalists in the People's Republic of China (PRC) could pull it off on their own. The really fascinating aspect about the news media in China is that the strongest impetus for what we might call a "marketplace press" is coming not from the newsrooms but from the business side, from the publishers, and from advertising departments. And it's not that publishers and the advertising sales forces are burning with a desire for a Chinese version of the First Amendment. …

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