Monday, October 20, 2003

Working for the clamp down
While it professes to follow Associated Press style and to model itself after Western journalism, the Shenzhen Daily is actually a weird hybrid between East and West that wobbles along a fine line, veering mostly on the side of journalism as cheerleading/propaganda.
A typical Monday morning news meeting is instructional. We gather at 10 a.m. to critique the last week's papers. Outwardly it's like any news room meeting. Staffers dribble in clutching refreshments - in this case not cups of joe, but bags of nuts and cans of sweet herbal tea - and it begins late.
For the benefit of foreign devil coworker Jeff and I it begins in English. It can be a painful process for all concerned, as the staff's English level, while generally well above the average English speaking Chinese, varies greatly.
The critiques vary, too as does the degree of cultural and journalistic confusion. No one on the staff, save Jeff, myself and one senior editor, have been trained as journalists.
This critique began with an advisory from the paper's second-in-command that foreign wire stories be checked carefully for the "Western opinion" that China's trade surplus is "large."
"It our government's opinion that it is not so large. So we must speak to the point of view of our government, not the U.S. government," he said sternly.
The sound I heard was Tom Paine rolling over in his grave.
Another editor, Paul, is also probably one of the few Communist Party members on the staff. He spent three months in Germany once and, as such, believes he has a superior command of the English language. He is ambitious and like ass kissers every where tends to criticize only when he thinks he will score points.
Our "taikonaut " coverage - which was extensive and as good as the state controlled media could provide - was praised, but Paul singled out a story with a headline that read: "Postive reaction to China's space launch".
Saith Paul: "The first person who speaks in the story is an average citizen of Hong Kong. Only later do we read that distinguished foreign leaders praised our space launch. This is not right that an average citizen should be quoted before leaders."

Therein lies the germ of a bigger battle that Jeff and I fight daily. Hierarchy, especially when it comes to media coverage here, is all in China. Only recently did we manage to get a photo cutline in the paper that identified every single person, foreigner and Chinese woman alike, in the picture from left to right with the Shenzhen mayor listed last. No big deal one might think but there's an explanation for our small triumph.
Normally, unless the person is a prominent foreigner - like Madonna or Dubya - they are not identified.
"Foreigners gaze in awe at Great Wall" is typical. It might as well read: "Martian savages who live in caves and drool while eating roots and berries marvel at superior Chinese technology."
If the subjects are Chinese, they are not identified from left to right, but according prominence. This can lead to some very confusing cutlines. If they are unfortunate enough to be born a woman and lack political or social power they are normally not identified at all.
Back to Paul. He was also upset with the headline. "We should not use the term 'Positive,'" he proclaimed firmly. "Because this infers that there might be negative reaction to our grand space shot."
But that's what the story is about, Jeff and I said. It's about positive reaction to Yang's flight. There was no negative reaction. People all over the world were happy for China. And even if there was negative reaction, you would not have printed it, right?
Paul ignored the last question but stood firm. The paper's editor, who had initially agreed with Paul, veered now toward the foreign expertise of the barbarians. Finally, so no one would lose face, another editor intervened.
"I think we can agree that the space shot was postive and that the nuts that Miss Feng has brought from her home province are delicious."

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