The elephant in the newsroom

Imagethief was interested to read in yesterday’s People’s Daily Online a brief articlereporting on a conference to address the problems that China’s international news organizations face in reaching foreign audiences. The discussion focused on how China is portrayed by services such as Xinhua, , China Daily, CCTV9 and the English version ofPeople’s Daily, which are meant to reach out to foreign audiences:

“The Chinese should develop more efficient ways of communicating with the outside world,” said Wu Jianmin, president of the Foreign Affairs Collegeand former Chinese Ambassador to France.

“An acclaimed foreign expert on China once told me China’s distorted image would be the largest obstacle for its further development,” Wu said. “Sometimes, even when information is reported objectively, it can still send the wrong signals.”

For example, some media focus too much on China’s GDP or exports growth, giving the foreign audience an impression that everything in China is rosy, but they forget the cost of the successes, for example harm to the environment, Wu said.

***

Experts believe Chinese media are facing tough challenges in communicating with overseas audiences. “The most difficult thing is that the most talented professionals are gravitating towards higher-paid jobs,” said Ma Shengrong, vice president of Xinhua News Agency.

“The voices of the Chinese media are still weak on the world stage due to various factors, including the difficulty of translating some Chinese values and phrases into English,” he added.

I am inclined to agree with those “experts” cited in the second to last paragraph, above. However, while loss of talent and translation may be part of the problem, I think they fit into a much larger picture that is conspicuously ignored by the article.

First, the general quality of China’s English language media is, by international standards, dismal. There are certainly talented people, both Chinese and foreign, working for China’s various international news services, but for various reasons the average level of quality in both print and broadcast is simply not up to international standards. This is true in the details, like copy editing in much of the English language print media and the foreign talent (in the broadcast sense) employed by CCTV 9, and in a broader sense, in the editing, story selection and frequent ham-fisting of the political slant.

All of these issues, however, are descended from the larger problem, the elephant in the room studiously overlooked in the article above. China’s international news services are explicit state propaganda organs. It is pointless to discuss whether Chinese media organizations are following a balanced editorial line, especially on issues that impact the image of China abroad, when the editorial line is heavily influenced if not dictated by the state. Even the perception of that influence is damaging, and tends to drive foreigners away or make them wary.

China isn’t unique in having state news organizations that fill a propaganda role. The United States maintains several state propaganda media agencies, and plenty of other nations do the same. And I would argue that there is a legitimate role for these kinds of organizations in the grand scheme of things. But China’s authoritarian government, with its reputation for micromanaging state public relations issues and zealous propaganda apparatus, will be seen by overseas audiences –correctly, I believe– as being much more deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of China’s international news services than the governments of liberal democracies are in most of their own. This is a problem for China, because I am sure that it wants CCTV9 to be seen as a peer of the BBC World Service or even the Voice of America more than as a peer of the North Korean KCNA. It certainly wants Xinhua to be seen as a credible global wire and financial information service, as we’ve all been recently reminded. But as long as its news organizations are seen as propaganda first and news second they’ll receive an immediate and steep credibility discount from foreign audiences.

The propaganda link and the general stodginess and stuffiness of state media probably also play a role in the talent drain as well. When state media was the only show in town that wouldn’t have been a problem. But China has an increasingly lively commercial media that is competing with the state behemoths for talent, including some magazines and newspapers with very good reputations. They might be subject to tight state regulation, but that’s not the same thing as being state-run. Also, there is an increasing number of foreign media organizations (and PR agencies) in China that are also able to woo the best and brightest, especially if they have English or other foreign language skills.

As for the ability to attract foreigners, I am acquainted with some smart and talented foreigners who have worked in Chinese state media. Many were fresh graduates or very young professionals for whom a year or two in Chinese state media was a reasonable way to work in China while moving toward a job in a foreign news organization or a grad school spot back home. Most of the older pros, however, had either grown an armor of cynicism or undergone a tortuous process of rationalization (or become embittered bloggers). And all foreigners working in Chinese state media, and especially the television presenters, had better reconcile themselves to being seen as complicit in China’s propaganda regimen, and to absorbing some of the bitter and often racially-tinged scorn that foreigners reserve for compatriots who are seen to have sold out their dignity or values to carry the Chinese government line. This scorn isn’t always fairly dispensed or justified, but it is there nonetheless.

Glossing up the production values in both print and broadcast might help, but it won’t be a solution as long as the hand of the state is seen to loom over newsrooms. Singapore, which has tried to turn its Channel News Asia cable news station into a regional equivalent of CNN has experienced some of this. CNA is relatively slick, manned by native English speakers, and should be able offer unique insight into Asia. But as long as parent Mediacorp and CNA are perceived as subservient to the Singapore government’s agenda other governments will be suspicious of them and people –especially the educated, affluent international businesspeople who make advertisers’ mouths water– will reach first for CNN, the BBC or their local equivalent.

The competition, every other English language print and television news source in the world, will be tough. Many of those organizations have cultivated reputations over decades. Ultimately success will come down to building a solid track record of good programming, editing and talent. China’s international media can’t be run like an English version of domestic media, which is what happens now. Foreign viewers won’t endure a stream of turgid articles reciting awkwardly translated political slogans and concepts, or news spots showing the Chinese leadership’s daily activities in protocol order. Even the Chinese seem to be growing considerably less patient with that, judging from the increasingly zippy and salacious Chinese language media. In fact, if the Chinese really want their global programming to fly, they might consider a significantly lighter government touch, perhaps just laying down some ground rules. That might enable them to do something else helpful, and hire top-flight, experienced foreigners or returnee Chinese from developed media markets to program or help edit. After all, Al-Jazeera has gleefully raided the BBC in its quest for respectability.

Such a move seems beyond the pale for the Chinese leadership and for the moment it probably is. The instinct to closely manage the media is probably too strong for the government to trust foreigners or even returnees to get too close to levers of power, although they’re welcome to copy edit and be talking heads. But as long they keep sailing the same path they have been, Xinhua the People’s Daily, China Daily and other English print media are doomed to be little more than attributions in foreign news reports and CCTV9 is destined to be a station of some use to locals practicing English, but shunned by most foreigners with access to anything better.

Note: See also the Peking Duck, especially the comment thread, in which a very good point is made. There is no monolithic “foreign” market, or even a monolithic “English language” market. Reaching out to Americans will be different than reaching out to Australians, Singaporeans or English speaking Italians for that matter. But every international broadcaster deals with that by either segmenting its programming, having different channels or publications, or targeting a narrower segment that crosses nationalities such as businesspeople. For the purposes of reaching a global audience, even via other country’s media, one of the best resources the Chinese ought to have at their disposal is savvy, quotable press officers with local knowledge stationed at embassies around the world. However one gets the sense that those people aren’t always the most quotable individuals around.

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