Perspective, Please, on China

In the Hutong
Fixing my Social Network
1125 hrs

A common complaint about reportage on China in the mainstream media is that despite having reporters who are immersed in China and its culture, some of the most prestigious media outlets continue to get the story wrong. Now, it seems, that the guardians of the journalistic craft, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and its prestigious professional periodical, the Columbia Journalism Review, have discovered the problem, and Peterson Fellow Holly Yeager dives into why.

“We’d just note that once a meta-press-narrative gets rolling, it tends to take on a life of its own, for a lot of reasons. Intra-newsroom dynamics play a role. It’s just easier to get a story in the paper that fits the meta-narrative than one that pushes against it. The former are the kinds of stories that, once pitched, make an editor’s head nod up and down like a bobble-head doll.”

Those of us living and working in China have suspected a problem with mainstream coverage of China for years, but have always found it difficult to put our finger on exactly what that was the case. We know the people writing the stories, most of them are as savvy as we are (or more so), and yet still the issue.

Yeager’s post is an excellent start, but I think it needs to go one step further.

Editors are not the final arbiters of an editorial approach to any given story. The vortex is complex, involves the publisher, the advertisers (there really is no perfect “Chinese Wall” in for-profit news organizations – not anymore, anyway), and the perceived attitudes of the readership.

Let’s face it: most of us, most of the time, do not like reading or viewing media that challenges our personal assumptions on any topic. If the case were any different, Al-Jazeera would be America’s leading news source, not CNN or FOX. That does not make us bad, it makes us human. Being uncomfortable, whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, is not fun, and most of us prefer comfort.

News media recognize this, and respond accordingly. This does not mean that journalists and editors are required to pander to readers, but it does mean that they can only go so far in challenging our core assumptions before the channel is changed, the paper is tossed, the advertisers lose their target market, and journalists lose their audience.

We should not expect journalists to challenge the preconceived notions of their readership. What those of us with our own “power of the press” need to do is to find another way to begin changing attitudes. Those of us with only our peers and our readers to answer to are actually in a better position to do so. And in the meantime, let’s give our journalist friends a little break.