Can we start taking journalism on China more seriously

No one was stuck in traffic for five days…

Last Wednesday (the 8th of October), on the last day of the Golden Week holiday in China, I was in the back of a taxi on my way to explore the Caochangdi Art Village in the northeast of Beijing. As I struggled to use my garbled Mandarin to explain the route to my driver, I directed him onto a slow-moving, highly congested speedway. We crawled along for maybe twenty metres and I realised that, not only was the traffic unfeasibly slow-going, but we were also on the wrong road.

“Maybe we should try a different route?” I suggested, blaming the traffic. He agreed instantly, and as we turned off up the ramp I fidgeted with Badu maps, trying desperately to look like I knew where I was going.

“They’re all on their way back home from holiday,” he mused as we pulled away and I nodded sagely at the back of his seat.

The next day (after having returned on public transport) I spotted a headline in the ‘What’s Trending’ section of my Facebook. “Beijing, China”, it read, “Motorists Stranded for up to 5 days in 50-Lane Traffic”, referring to a jam in another part of the city and blaming the increased congestion on families returning home from their travels during the recent national holiday. I thought back to my experience the day before and felt a twinge of recognition and sympathy for the plight of my fellow Beijingers, but beyond that, did not take much notice.

However, fast-forward a few days and the same headline was still there. At this, I started to think through the dynamics of the claim. Granted, the traffic in Beijing had been bad, but five days?  That didn’t seem likely. Surely the cars weren’t still stranded, and even if they were, if the initial claim had been accurate, would they not now have been stuck for seven or eight days? What’s more, they couldn’t have been stranded for five days at the time of writing as they would have had to have arrived back in Beijing just one or two days after the Golden Week holiday (only a week long, unsurprisingly,) had begun (on the 1st of October).

I decided to investigate the origin of the claim. Clicking on the Facebook link took me to Buzzfeed and various other Internet friendly, picture-heavy and detail-sparse news outlets. Further research still did not enlighten me as to where it had come from. Most articles seemed to focus on a tweet posted on the 7th of October by the People’s Daily, showing the (granted, pretty nightmarish) traffic from above via photos taken using an aerial drone.

Via People's Daily Twitter

Buzzfeed reported that cars had been stranded for five days – just one day after the People’s Daily actually reported the jam.

Eventually, at the foot of the Buzzfeed article, (published on the 8th of October) the very last sentence, I found it: “some motorists were stranded for five days”. Despite this being nothing more than a lazy afterthought it became, courtesy of its Facebook exposure, the headline that defined the article for millions of readers. Not only was it inaccurate, but also difficult to believe.

Unfortunately, this is indicative of the state of a large proportion of Western journalism concerning China. Because knowledge, and more importantly understanding, of China and Chinese issues is very limited in the West, writers get away with publishing lazy, perfunctory and often inaccurate articles. The world took note of the scale and magnitude contained within the notion of China at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, rather engaging with this diverse and complicated Nation, we gawped at her and much China-journalism has become little more than a showcase of the sublime or the ridiculous, consisting of vaguely approximated (sometimes guessed) figures; belief-defying easy-reads, and poorly translated proverbs.

The problem extends to more serious journalism too. In August this year, The Economist reported,  breathing Beijing’s air is the equivalent of smoking almost 40 cigarettes a day”. Not only does this not give adequate attention to the fact that Beijing’s Air Quality Index varies vastly from one day to the next (the US embassy provide hourly figures here), but it also oversimplifies the issue – making a lazy comparison between two things (industrial pollution and cigarette smoke) that are not really comparable (for those who are interested, a more thorough expounding of the matter can be found here). And yet, this article went viral – its shocking nature grabbing the attention of the international readership. Many, because of the unhealthily skewed balance between insightful reporting and sensationalism, failed to question its claims.

What’s more, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle, the more of these articles are published, the more they reinforce our bizarre perception of China, and the more willing we are to accept dubious claims and outlandish declarations.

Now, certainly, the pace of China’s economic and political rise, as well as its vast size and populace makes for some incredible figures and, often, some ridiculous stories. And, in essence, there is nothing wrong with reporting on a fifty-lane traffic jam or the low air-quality in Beijing, but when this leads to inaccurate claims; we need to be more critical. (How, for instance, does a five-day, post-holiday traffic jam even work, do drivers stay in in their cars and starve to death, or do they leave and return five days later when the traffic magically disappears? If we wouldn’t accept something as plausible in the West, very often, it isn’t plausible in China either). Nor is it the case that the entire corpus of articles related to China is completely devoid of depth or quality journalism. However, the frequencies with which these poorer articles appear, and the level of credibility they are accorded means that sensationalism and inaccuracy are at risk of overshadowing reporting that provides genuine insight. Rather than gawk, we should engage, and we need to take journalism on China more seriously.



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