How the Chinese Media is Turning into The Onion
At the end of each year, “Journalist Monthly,” a Chinese publication akin to the “Columbia Journalism Review,” lists the top ten fake news stories that have appeared in the mainstream media. These fake stories are not intentional Onion-like spoofs. They are presented as true stories by the “legit” Chinese media.
The 2009 list is just as absurd and entertaining as it has been in previous years: President Obama e-maiied North Korea’s Kim Jong-il and gave him a Mac and an iPhone; the sister-in-law of a corrupt official maintained relationships with 16 cicisbeos; China’s naval fleet confronted an Indian submarine off the coast of Somalia. For a country lacking tabloids or satirical news publications like The Onion, the very existence of these fake stories can seem shocking at first glance.
While the Chinese often doubt the motives and government influences behind the news, until recent years, they could at least expect some small basis in reality from stories coming out of the Chines media.
So what’s behind his outburst of fake news? Ferocious competition in the media business. It’s a misconception that all Chinese media outlets are state-owned. The state still has very tight control over news media ownership, but it promotes competition because it leads to higher profits. Media outlets know that if they stay away from politically sensitive issues they’ll be allowed to make as much money as they can.
The result is that most Chinese cities, both big and small, often have half-a-dozen newspapers and numerous local TV channels. Audience and advertising markets overlap. Competition is inevitable and ruthless. It’s not uncommon to find two or three newspapers belonging to the same media group fighting against each other in the same market.
In this context, exclusive content is pivotal to success, especially for local news outlets. (Looking at past years, it’s easy to see that many fake news stories originated at the local level.) Journalists and editors are under a lot of pressure to provide new content. This is where the fake stories kick in.
Of course, media professionals all over the world are subject to similar pressure, but the problem is exacerbated in China thanks to a history of poor journalistic ethics and the influence of government propaganda.
For decades it was more important to have the correct political stance than to have your facts right. The goal was to persuade, not to inform. The end justified the means, and any ploy or dodgy tactic was deemed acceptable, as long as you got the story.
Thanks to the commercialization of media, the propaganda mode is starting to fade and western-style professionalism is beginning to take its place. But old habits die hard. Abuse of anonymous sources continues to be a problem. Anonymity is widely and injudiciously deployed in the Chinese media; an “anonymous source” often means a false source or no source at all.
The Internet is also a huge breeding ground for fake news. Gossip, fake interviewees, fabricated data, and digitally distorted photos are abundant and can be obtained at marginal cost online. It’s also very easy to spread and magnify fake news on the Internet. On the other hand, stories that go live online are subject to intense public scrutiny. In this way, the Internet can also function as a fact checker. But the volume of stories on the web is far too high for every story to be scrutinized.
The Chinese public is taking note of the fake news phenomenon. Rather than becoming angry, the Chinese are increasingly cynical — and seem also to be increasingly amused by the absurdity. Maybe the time is right for The Chinese Onion — The Wonton Soup?
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