Unshackled media report with rare candor

Work in contrast with past attempts to hide suffering

Chinese media have been unusually aggressive in covering the massive destruction. Chinese media have been unusually aggressive in covering the massive destruction. (REUTERS)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tini Tran
Associated Press / May 15, 2008

BEIJING - Bodies buried under mounds of rubble, bloodied survivors pulled from debris, weeping family members begging for information - the stark images are blanketing Chinese newspapers and television broadcasts.

The country's media are mounting an aggressive effort to cover the worst earthquake in decades, making a major departure from China's past tendency to conceal crises.

Scenes of destruction dominated the airwaves as state China Central Television switched to 24-hour coverage after the 7.9-magnitude quake hit Monday in Sichuan province.

Journalists dispatched across the stricken area fed a stream of fresh reports on rescue operations.

The official English-language China Daily devoted its front page to pictures of orange-suited rescue workers pulling out survivors and stories displayed against a black background in a sign of mourning. Other newspapers devoted half to three-quarters of their pages to quake coverage.

Officials have not fully unshackled the often tightly controlled media. Reports are emphasizing the government's rapid, full-scale response over grieving and sometimes angry survivors. And the fact that the earthquake was a natural - rather than manmade - disaster might have played a role in journalists being set loose.

Still, the nonstop, candid coverage is remarkable given China's usual response to disasters.

"The old traditions in reporting bad news were to cover up and to block, but it's very different now," said Shao Peiren, a mass media professor at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou. "It shows the Chinese government is more confident than ever. It has realized that by sharing the news candidly, it can win the support of the public and the understanding of its people."

Three decades ago, Chinese leaders played down a devastating earthquake that battered the city of Tangshan and refused international aid, concealing a death toll of at least 240,000. More recently, China's foot-dragging in reporting the SARS epidemic in 2004 led to international criticism, as did its crackdown two months ago on protesters in Tibet.

The relative openness in reporting on the quake provides a sharp contrast to coverage of the anti-government riots in Lhasa, said Shi Anbin, professor of media studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Largely peaceful protests took place in Tibet's capital as early as March 10, but there was no coverage whatsoever by Chinese media, Shi said. Foreign journalists were barred from Tibet and western China, but they have been given free rein in covering the quake's aftermath.

"The government and the media have learned a lesson from the Tibet incident," Shi said. "Chinese media have been much more proactive in the earthquake coverage, instead of being forced to react as they were during the Tibet incident."

Often hesitant to report negative news, state media have taken the lead in providing figures of the dead and missing in Sichuan and they broadcast footage of toppled buildings and blocked roads within the first few hours.

The official Xinhua News Agency and CCTV have prominently played up the mammoth rescue effort. They also have given extensive coverage to Premier Wen Jiabao as he comforted orphans and rallied soldiers with a megaphone in hand after flying in within hours to lead the relief operation.

But reporters for regional newspapers have filed pieces describing scenes of destruction from an eyewitness viewpoint, said David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

"Overall, we have seen moderately open coverage of the earthquake, not just from Xinhua and CCTV, but from the commercial media," he said. "It seems there is a tolerance for reporting from the ground and there's an interest in giving reporters leeway in reporting on the story."

China's state media were apparently given a green light to fully report on the extent of the disaster, said Xiao Qiang, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

"This time, the fact that the government from the top, starting with [Premier] Wen Jiabao, responded to the situation, really made a big difference," he said. "The agenda is being led by the media, which is different than many cases before."

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