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Foreign Media Face a Trust Crisis in China

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Foreign Media Face a Trust Crisis in China

Western media have lost a good deal of their credibility with ordinary Chinese. How can they recover that trust?

Foreign Media Face a Trust Crisis in China
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When I was a student more than 20 years ago, I would take a radio into the university garden at night to listen to the news broadcasts of the BBC and VOA. It was a way to practice my English listening skills, but I also felt like I was learning from the broadcasts. At that time, there was no internet media and few alternatives to state-run media in China. Hearing the original English broadcasts in this way, I naturally believed most of content.

How things have changed since then. With the rapid spread of digital technology, China has become the world’s largest internet country. Nowadays, there are many ways to learn English, and anyone with a smartphone can watch English news channels. As a result, ordinary Chinese see the world differently. They do not need to accept information from a single source. Trust in state-owned media is definitely decreasing bit by bit among Chinese people, but in parallel a question mark is often drawn on foreign media reports.

Western media has gradually lost its trust among ordinary Chinese people. Why?

With the rapid development of China’s economy and significant social progress, Chinese people have seen great improvements in their day-to-day lives. At the same time, their self-confidence in the face of the outside world is also increasing. Ordinary people may have looked up to Western media in the past, but now they are looking at it eye-to-eye, and some Chinese nationalists are even starting to look down on Western media.

In some Chinese eyes, foreign media might seem to be independent, but are actually controlled – if not by their governments, then by their financial masters, which also ultimately serve foreign interests and are just as unfriendly to China. This had led many Chinese to conclude that foreign media reports on China basically smear the country.

It doesn’t help that, on occasion, foreign media reports on China affairs make obvious mistakes. In such cases, the slip-ups immediately become the focus of Chinese social media, and Chinese state-owned media will follow up to jeer at Western media. A few months ago, the state-owned China Daily strongly blasted these media outlets and described their journalists as “China haters.”

In this way, it’s easy to create an atmosphere of increasing distrust of foreign media across Chinese society.

U.K. Ambassador to China Caroline Wilson recently penned an article titled “Do foreign media hate China?” which defended foreign reporting on China affairs. She argued that China should allow foreign media to report freely. But unfortunately, her article only aroused more anger among Chinese people.

I agree with the ambassador that foreign media generally do not hate China. I have been in contact with many foreign journalists from the West and the South alike, and I know that none of them hates China. But the problem lies in the fact that some sloppy foreign media reports on China serve as an “Achilles heel” – their factual errors serve to discredit all of foreign media by association.

For example, in October 2019, the British police found 39 bodies in a container truck. In the absence of any information from police, the British media said the victims, who were of Asian descent, were illegal Chinese immigrants. CNN later repeated the mistake – it did not check the facts, but arbitrarily affirmed the victims were Chinese. In fact, at a press conference of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, CNN ridiculed China by asking the spokesperson a trick question: “As you laid out, there have been many successes, advances and progress of the past 70 years with the People’s Republic of China… what would then motivate people from China to want to leave?”

When the British police confirmed that 39 victims were all Vietnamese, the Western media went silent, and never corrected their earlier mistakes.

When Chinese people hear about such mistakes, which seem to be motivated by underlying negative assumptions about China, they question the credibility of all foreign media. This is not a matter of foreign media supervision in China, as the U.K. ambassador said, nor is it about preventing foreign media from reporting on China, but a basic question of whether the content they report on China affairs is true or not. If it is fake news, Chinese people are certainly not happy.

Of course, I think specific examples of obvious errors and unprofessional reporting on China affairs are not evidence of systematic fraud, nor are foreign media reporters “China haters.” But individual mistakes affect the whole.

How can foreign media better report on China in the future and increase Chinese people’s trust in them? I would like to make three suggestions for them to improve their coverage of China.

First, foreign media need to take more care to stay true to basic journalistic practices. Truth is the lifeblood of the news. Incident of “fake news” and misinformation do irreparable harm to media’s reputation, whether the news involves China or not. Indeed, the anger in the United States directed against media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post for their perceived bias on U.S. political issues also feeds the perception within China that Western media cannot be trusted.

To give another example, a few weeks ago, an independent investigation report published by Lord Dyson, a retired U.K. Supreme Court justice, stated that BBC reporter Martin Bashir had acted in a “deceitful” way and faked documents in 1995 to obtain an exclusive interview with Princess Diana. In 1996, an internal investigation conducted by the BBC covered up it. After Lord Dyson’s report was released, the BBC apologized to Princess Diana and the British royal family.

Princess Diana is very well-known among the Chinese people, so many of them heard about this report. I personally was shocked by this incident. Bashir violated the basic bottom line of journalism to seek truth from facts. But to many Chinese, it merely cemented their perception of the BBC as an unreliable actor, based on its previous reporting about China.

For instance, in a very popular video on social media recently, the leader of the Nigerian community in Guangzhou, China angrily accused a BBC Hong Kong correspondent of having misrepresented his interview in an article about Chinese people’s discrimination against Africans. Ogbonna Maximus Ikenna claimed that his comments that Africans’ situation in China was getting better were not represented in the article, which did not end up quoting him at all. This video attracted the attention of Chinese netizens, who used it to question the authenticity of the BBC reports. They discussed it actively and extensively on social media.

Ikenna’s complaint reminded many Chinese of earlier claims accusing the BBC of falsifying information in a video report on Xinjiang. In that case, video footage released by the Chinese police shows drastically different interactions than the ones portrayed in the BBC’s video report.

Observers outside China may be inclined to question these accusations, but from the perspective of many Chinese, the damage has been done. Charges of “fake news” have deepened their cynicism toward the BBC – and, by extension, Western media as a whole.

Second, foreign media should report more on what ordinary Chinese people think and avoid treating minority voices as the mainstream. Many foreign media do not report much about the ideas of ordinary Chinese people; instead, they prefer to amplify non-mainstream voices. That not only makes Chinese people dissatisfied, but it also misleads foreign people and even foreign governments by misrepresenting the reality of China. In general, foreign media pay too much attention to dissidents and other figures in exile, ignoring the voices of ordinary people within China.

If only 1 percent of Chinese people are dissatisfied with a certain policy or practice, but their voices are replicated in 90 percent of foreign media reports, this will certainly not be accepted by most Chinese. Of course, that 1 percent needs to be heard, but from the perspective of journalistic professionalism, a good balance of different opinions is very important to keep neutrality and objectivity.

Third, foreign journalists must contact more professionals to gather more information. Foreign media not only have to speak with Chinese media, public opinion leaders, “self-media,” and neutral scholars in large numbers, but also need to establish good relations with government officials in order to obtain more information. Some reporters may find it distasteful to cultivate a relationship with Chinese government officials, but the fact is that a certain level of access is required to make reports more credible and accountable – in China as in any country in the world.

For example, the Washington Post reported a few days ago there were 119 “missile silos” being built in western China. But it was finally confirmed the so-called silos are the holes being dug for the construction of wind power stations. Chinese people began to use “Chinese ground circles frighten the US” as a tag on social media to mock Americans for their fragile nerves. Similar reports have obviously affected the reputation of the Washington Post among Chinese people. If the Post had interviewed more Chinese experts before publishing the report, the situation could have been avoided.

I have always believed that if foreign media release objective and truthful news about China, it will be a boost to China’s opening up to the outside world. But if there are too many flaws in the news, or even the deliberate dissemination of false news, it will actually obstruct Chinese social progress. Such incidents only increase the number of anti-Western Chinese nationalists and further widen the gap between China and the West.