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What can China do to improve the Western media coverage?

Otto Kolbl

The huge majority of the Chinese are outraged by the way in which the Western media report about their country. Some tried to get their voice heard, but generally without much success. This lack of success is probably due to a large extent to cultural differences, which make communication about sensitive topics difficult.

The Chinese use mainly three different arguments:

  • The Western media report only about the negative aspects in China, they don't live up to their standard of balanced reporting.
  • The Western media have made obvious errors, especially in their coverage of the unrest in Tibet in March 2008.
  • When talking about "human rights abuses", the West is not in a position to criticize China, because the Western countries have got various problems with their human rights standards too. Furthermore, human rights are an internal affair, and "meddling in the internal affairs" of another country is explicitly prohibited by international law.

However, Western journalists will not accept these arguments, for reasons related to basic Western values and to the Western concept of the role of the media. On the other hand, there are other arguments which are much more likely to inflect the Western journalistic methods in a durable way. They are based on a fact-based critical comparison of the actual reporting with the Western ideal of good journalistic practice.

"Only bad news is good news"

The Western media consider themselves to be a countervailing power (see our article The Western media – Power without countervailing power?). This role consists in closely watching each move of the authorities and other powerful actors, in order to report all possible abuses. This role is considered to be fundamental to the good functioning of democratic as well as authoritarian societies. Therefore, reporting about problems and abuses is fundamental to the self-understanding of our media, whereas reporting about things which work well is not considered to be vital.

Another factor is the commercialization of the Western media. Western consumers tend to be more interested in reports about abuses than in reports about nice progress and positive development. This has not always been the case. In the 1950ies and 1960ies, Western newspapers and magazines had a much more optimistic tone, and this was generally appreciated. Things started to change with the 1968 movement, the 1973 oil shock and with the various economic crises which followed. More recently, the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and the recent loss of Western influence in the world have amplified this tendency.

Therefore, Western media reports are generally more "negative" in their tone and in the selected subjects than Chinese media. This does not justify the abuses of recent Western media reporting about China, because even criticism must be fair. However, only a systematic comparison between solid data and a large quantity of newspaper articles can allow us to point out problems.

Amnesty International, a well-known human rights defense organization, publishes every year a report denouncing human rights abuses in almost every country on earth. This report is not exactly part of what we call the "media", but it has a great influence on newspapers and TV news, and its structure makes it especially suitable for such an example. There is one article per country; they have got all the same structure. This makes a systematic comparison much easier.

The 2010 report mentions among others the "lack of access to adequate health care" in the article about China (p. 104). The only other country where access to health care is described as a general problem for the whole population is Afghanistan. This is in obvious contradiction to the data provided by the World Health Organization and the Child Mortality Estimate organization.

According to their figures, China ranks 60th out of 156 in terms of infant mortality relative to the standard of living (in all the rankings, rank 1 stands for the positive end of the scale, i.e. here for a low infant mortality rate). It does even better in the recent decrease in infant mortality, where it ranks 17th out of 156 (see our article The right to health – how can we hold the governments accountable?). Infant mortality is generally considered to be a good indicator of general access to health care.

These good results in recent years are confirmed by a series of articles in the prestigious medical periodical The Lancet. The volume 372 (November 2008) was dedicated to the recent health reforms in China. Therefore, Amnesty's accusation that China shows a "lack of access to adequate health care" is totally unfounded, the contrary is true: China provides a far better access to health care to its population than the international average.

Newspapers are of course much more difficult to analyze; this is the more true for TV and radio. Each year, many articles are published in each newspaper about every major country in the world. Only a quantitative analysis of all the articles or of a random sample using adequate statistical tools allows a meaningful comparison.

From my personal experience, such an analysis would certainly reveal a heavily biased reporting about corruption. According to Transparency International, China ranks 78th out of 178 countries listed in the Corruption Perception Index 2010, therefore doing better than average. Despite this relatively good score, corruption is mentioned almost systematically when talking about the Chinese political system or China in general, much more so than in other countries where corruption is much more widespread.

Only such systematic research in this and other similar questions could provide the necessary data to confront the media and show them that their reporting about China does not correspond to their own quality standards. It could prove that the feeling, widespread among Chinese, that our media are "biased against China" is caused not by cultural differences, but by objectively measurable problems in their coverage. Unfortunately, Western media researchers will never engage in this kind of research methodology (see our article What do media scientists do against abusive reporting by our media?).

Obvious errors in the reporting about the Tibet unrest in 2008

In 2008, many websites were filled with reports about the errors made by the Western media when reporting about the Tibet unrest in 2008. However, there are two fundamental problems with this way of criticizing our media. First of all, the fact that the media make errors from time to time is well know and well documented; this procedure will not lead to a fundamental questioning of their working methods. Second, criticizing a few details shows that all the rest is correct.

The Western media report not only about the world, they report about their own errors too. They do not always do so properly, but quite often they will use reports about their own errors in order to increase their credibility: "You see, we make errors, this is unavoidable, but we recognize them and inform about them." In the case of Tibet, they had a good excuse for these errors: If the Chinese government had not barred them from reporting from the region, they could have offered better information about these events.

However, there is a much more general problem with pointing out precise details which are incorrect: it confirms that all the rest is correct. It shows that even those who don't like what the media say can only criticize minor details and don't have any arguments against most of the information given by the media.

Recently, I talked with a Swiss media specialist about the problem of incorrect media reporting. He confirmed the impression that I got from reading several books about the topic: most researchers believe that false information appears in the media from time to time, and can be transmitted from one journal or TV channel to another with incredible speed. However, these cases are believed to be discovered quite quickly and corrected, even if the media do not always recognize their errors publicly.

Proving them wrong is not an easy task, and it takes much more than pointing out a few details. Here again, we arrive at the conclusion that systematic research is necessary, in which media reports are compared with independent sources. In particular, most of the background information about Tibet, as it is presented in the Western media, is in stark contradiction to historical events as presented in Western history books. However, since not that many people read them, this fact will generally go unnoticed.

Human rights: internal affairs or global scrutiny?

Each time the Western media criticize China about her human rights record, the Chinese government answers that human rights are an internal affair. The Western countries, so the argumentation, are not perfect in respect to human rights (which is certainly true), therefore they should first clean up their own mess before they sermon other countries.

This line of defense has got no chance of succeeding, mainly for two reasons. First of all, one of the basic principles of human rights is that even countries which are not perfect can and should criticize other countries about their human rights record. Second, the Western countries have been deeply traumatized by the fascist regimes which have triggered World War II (see our article Europe and China – two opposed traumas). Intervening quickly when a regime is responsible for systematic human rights abuses is considered to be the only way of preventing a repetition of what happened in the 1930ies. Since the fundamental human rights tools were elaborated in the years after World War II, this principle is now enshrined in texts valid for the whole world.

However, this does not mean that the criticism of the Western media is justified. The first problem is that they consider only the civil and political rights (see our article Europe and human rights – the history of a silent amputation). I heard many Chinese government officials trying to convince the journalist interviewing them that the economic, social and cultural rights are also part of the human rights, but with no success.

Many journalists defuse this argument by explaining to their readers that "the Chinese government considers that the social rights like the right to a decent standard of living are also part of the human rights". Our media have succeeded in a whole century of a constant ideological fight against communism to convince almost all Westerners that whatever the Chinese government says is wrong. Therefore, whenever a Westerner hears a Chinese government official using this argument, he sees his conviction confirmed that this is the "Chinese concept of human rights", which should not be taken seriously.

Moreover, the evolution of the human rights situation in China should be taken into account. In the last decades, a positive development took place in all the fields, not only in the economic, social and cultural rights. China has made important progress in building the rule of law, even if much remains to be done. Even voices extremely critical towards the regime confirm that freedom of expression is not an empty word anymore, even if it does not reach the level in Western states yet.

It is perfectly understandable that the international community is worried if a regime will more and more disregard the human rights. However, if a country shows regular progress in the last decades, it is difficult to see why this positive evolution should be ignored and why the constant China-bashing should go on.

Cultural differences in conflict solving

In general, the problem is that the Chinese argumentation is too much on the defensive. Based on solid research about the human rights concept used by the Western media, the Chinese government officials could argue that the Western media systematically betray the human rights they pretend to defend. They should say loud and clear that whoever reads the UN human rights text will immediately realize that there is a problem. This would put the media on the defensive; they would have to justify themselves, which they can not do.

The relative inefficiency of the Chinese argumentation is probably due to the Chinese culture of conciliatory problem solving. I admire and respect this habit. It is not an exclusively Chinese characteristic: it is also one of the fundaments of the Swiss political culture, and this has made Switzerland an extremely stable country. I don't doubt that it has also contributed to a large extent to the fast and smooth development in China and that it is an absolutely necessary feature for managing such a large and diverse country.

However, when talking with foreign journalists, a more aggressive discussion style would be more adapted to the situation and the audience. The Western media use extremely problematic methods to criticize China with regards to all the imaginable aspects, including in fields where China is among the best performing countries in the world. This helps them to sell their newspapers and to attract a larger audience to TV news programs; they will not give up this income source without a fight.

When trying to solve a conflict, the Chinese will do everything in order not to "lose their face" and will also try to avoid that their opponent loses his face. By contrast, the only way of putting pressure on the Western media is precisely to make them lose their face in front of their own audience. Since this would be done with solid data considered trustworthy even in the eyes of Westerners, the Western journalists would have to recognize that much of what they said and wrote before was actually wrong. This would lead them to change their reporting by their own will, not through pressure from outside.

Since 2008, the Chinese government and people have been more and more successful in their attempts to put outside pressure on the Western media so that they soften their tone and report about more positive aspects of the Chinese development. A perfect example is the boycott of the French products after the torch relay in Paris, which ended in a disaster while the French security forces did not much to avoid it. As soon as the French economic interests in China were hurt, pressure grew on the media to repair the damage and to take the Chinese public opinion into consideration.

However, this external pressure on the media is a two-edged sword. In response, the Western media portray China more and more as a threatening new power, which we must fight with all possible means if we don't want to be dominated by it. This is a new turn in the Western discourse about China which is certainly not good for a peaceful development of the world.

Many Chinese might consider the Western media as the voice of the West. However, more and more Westerners are critical towards their own media. In particular, almost all the people I know who visited remote countries lost their faith in our media because what they saw there did not correspond to what they had learned through the media before. Forcing our media to report in a more professional way about remote countries might actually be a way to help them regain credit in the eyes of the public opinion not only in China, but even in the West (see our article The ethic charter for journalists and researchers working on remote countries).

At the same time, it could open the way to a real application of the economic, social and cultural rights, which the Western media have decided to boycott. This would certainly lead to a significant improvement of the living conditions of billions of people worldwide. It would also lead to a better understanding between the people of the world, especially between the rich and the poor.

China is in the best position to help our media to understand what went wrong and how to improve it, since this country was among the poorest countries on earth some 60 years ago. Now, it has got the research capacity to do the necessary data collecting and also the prestige deriving from a fast and successful development.