Los Angeles Times OPINION

Lack of news about China has nothing to do with bias

Comprehensive foreign coverage doesn't fit into the financial structure of traditional mainstream media.

By Timothy Garton Ash

April 16, 2009

In China, there is a widespread belief that Western media give a distorted picture of what's happening there. There's some truth in this, but it's not for the reasons that Chinese Communist Party members or nationalist "netizens" imagine.

Most Westerners with a mild interest in China probably see a lot of stories about Tibet, the upcoming anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, corruption and popular discontent. They see less about the extent of popular support for the system, bright students still joining the Communist Party or experiments in economic and political reform, especially at the provincial and local levels.

However, this slant is not because of "anti-China" policy or prejudice. Hard as it may be for many Chinese to believe -- because their own media reflect the policy of their party-state -- Western governments have almost nothing to do with it. The cause lies in the West's commercial news business, which is going through one of those "gales of creative destruction" that Joseph Schumpeter saw to be characteristic of capitalism.

As they compete fiercely for readers and viewers, mainstream Western media tend to stick with stories that are familiar and interesting to them. They report about Tibet not because they are ideological China-bashers but because their consumers are fascinated by and care about Tibet.

Yes, their news stories on China's domestic politics tend to the sensational and the negative -- so do their stories about the domestic politics of their own countries. Those who edit and select these stories are just following the market-oriented rules of their trade: If it bleeds, it leads. Good news is no news. "Many Chinese city-dwellers moderately content with rising standard of living" is not a headline that would sell many papers.

The real problem with China coverage in the mainstream Western media is not its negativity; it's simply that there's too little of it, given the growing importance of China and the fact that Chinese culture and society is so different from ours. Western media should not be writing less about the Dalai Lama or the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen anniversary, but they should be writing more about the other stories that make up China's complex, unfolding drama.

Alas, the trend is in the opposite direction, toward less foreign news of all kinds. The reason for this too is mainly economic. As advertising revenues fall, costly foreign bureaus close. That's bad news for news and also for international relations.

In a fine essay in the New Republic, Princeton scholar Paul Starr argues that news is a public good. Like clean air and good roads, it benefits not just those who directly pay for it. I extend his argument to foreign policy. In today's interconnected world, countries must understand each other, which depends on knowing the social facts and individual human stories that are the meat and drink of foreign news reporting.

So, as Comrade Lenin taught us to ask, what is to be done? A prime example of the wrong answer was given by China's ambassador to the European Union, Song Zhe. In a speech recently excerpted in the China Daily, Song says European and Chinese correspondents should "make their news reporting and commentary conducive to consensus, trust and cooperation" and "respect the other's theory of development, policy choice and cultural values."

No. That may be the business of ambassadors. It is not the business of journalists -- and especially not of reporters. Their job is to report accurately, fairly and vividly what they see, hear, smell and read. To tell it as it is. And thus, to recall a Chinese maxim favored by Deng Xiaoping, to "seek truth from facts."

All that remains is to do it. But actually, if you are interested and know where to look, that is already being done. A couple of hours on the Web, armed with a few tips, will lead you to an Aladdin's cave of rich, diverse, detailed reporting and analysis of China. (Try chinadigitaltimes.net and danwei.org as a first "open sesame.") Much of this is not fact-checked or balanced in a professional way, but it is subject to another kind of scrutiny, with bloggers mercilessly pointing out what they see as errors, distortions or omissions.

Meanwhile, leading Western journals such as the Economist, the New Yorker and the Atlantic carry long, original and thoroughly fact-checked articles from China. While I was in Beijing, I saw a report on BBC World News television about farmers who had given up their rural homes for urban development, having been promised a new school for their children. The promise had not yet been kept. Anti-China bias? Not at all. As it seeks truth from facts, the BBC is holding high the banner of Deng Xiaoping thought.

So where's the catch? In my lament at the top of this column, I was careful to refer to what most Western readers and viewers see most of the time. Starr, in his essay, makes a useful distinction between availability and exposure. China-news junkies can find a great daily hit. What is under threat is the broad, serendipitous daily exposure to news of the world that comes from turning the pages of a newspaper over your morning tea.

It's no use mewling over bygone glories of a probably mythical golden age of foreign reporting. The point now is to work out how to exploit the tremendous potential of new media so as to expose more of the people, more of the time, to reliable and interesting foreign news. More than just the future of journalism will depend on it.

Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion,is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University.


【英国《卫报》网站4月16日文章】(实为美国《洛杉矶时报》文章——福禄祯祥注)题:我们越是需要了解更多外国新闻,收到的却越少(作者 英国牛律大学教授蒂莫西·加顿·阿什)