Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Netizens Criticize Earthquake News for not Covering the Disaster

TV shows rescue workers flying to Qinghai

Some Chinese netizens have voiced displeasure over the fact that despite state media's heavy coverage on the earthquake in Yushu, the news is not really about the disaster. In particularly, it is not about the suffering victims.

Instead, the coverage is mostly about rescuing workers saving lives, government officials visiting disaster zones, and celebrities writing big checks, etc.

As one Chinese blogger put it, "all the news is not about the disaster or the victims. The theme is about the brave armed police officers and rescue workers." On TV, as this blogger described, rescue workers were dressed in red uniforms, fought against all odds "to create one after another miracle of life," and then there is cheering and happy tears, along with moving music soundtrack and emotional announcements from news anchors.

Not that there is anything wrong with all these, but what about the victims? What about their suffering, their loss, their pain? Who would give them some voice in the media?

True, today's state media in China no longer simply rely on Xinhua text, photos or footage in their coverage. True, newspapers, magazines, television stations from all around the country now could go to the disaster zone and gather abundant information enough for 24/7 live news feed. But make no mistake, quantity does not translate into variety of content.

Studies by media scholars show that during major disasters, state media in China usually frame their stories from the perceptive of government reactions or rescue work, rather than human interest. In other words, the news is often chockfull of rescuers' actions, quotes from government officials, but not much about individual suffering.

Such a pattern has been repeated in various disaster coverage for at least the past decade, including the 1998 Yangtze River flood and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In covering other man-made disasters such as the melamine-tainted baby formula scandal and many coal mine accidents, the official angle is even more dominant.

In comparison, Western newspapers tend to focus their coverage of disasters on the human interest angle. In the New York Times' coverage of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, for example, the narrative of most stories was based on individual victims, who were mentioned by full name, age, quoted directly, and depicted with great details.

I'm not saying that the New York Times is the golden standard that all Chinese media have to follow. I simply want to make the point that if a foreign newspaper could give personal voices to the suffering individuals, why not media in these people's own country? Why the authorities are so afraid of showing people's grievance and suffering, even during natural disasters? What drastic result could letting out the victims' voices incur? I really do not understand the rationale in the minds of those propaganda officials.

People affected by the disaster need to tell their stories and share their feelings, and other people want to hear. Why not target the camera at the victims, and let them express themselves? So they know that people around the country, including the media, care about them, and people watch the media can feel better connected with those in need.