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China’s Journalism: Did anything change in 2008?

by Haiyan Wang

If Chinese information consumers had expected the foreign media to give them unbiased and truthful news not provided by the domestic media, they probably would have been disappointed. '2008 brought changes to the relation between information consumers and the foreign media', and the post-2008 era will be a different chapter, Isabel Hilton told a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism lunchtime seminar on 3 December.

Isabel Hilton is a London based international journalist and broadcaster. She used to work as presenter and editor for the BBC radio programme The World Tonight. Now she is CEO of China Dialogue, an English-Chinese bilingual website focusing on environmental issues.

As a China expert, Isabel Hilton talked under the title 'China's journalism: Did anything change in 2008' by thoroughly reviewing and commenting on most of the important media events in this country. She said 2008 was an extraordinary year in China. It was a mixture of great national pride (Beijing Olympic Games in August) and great national grief (catastrophic earthquake in May). It saw the triumph of the media (the exposure of the milk-powder scandal) going side by side with journalist corruption (journalists collecting bribery to cover up the mining disaster in Shanxi Province). It was also a time when the power of online communities was released as a vigorous social force while the governments tried every means to control and guide it. Such a media scene, Isabel Hilton referred to as 'complicated and interesting'.

Isabel Hilton particularly talked about the Tibet riot in March which has captured huge national and international attention. During the riots, the Chinese government firstly blocked journalists from accessing the area and forbade domestic media from reporting on it, then tried to shape the reporting narrative when it could not cover up what happened. As the news spread abroad, the government made use of internet police to guide public opinion. This strategy worked. As a result, the majority of online comments in China criticised foreign news agencies for taking the side of the Tibetans. The Chinese even set up an anti-CNN website to protest against the foreign media. This was the moment that destroyed the trust between Chinese information consumers and foreign media agencies, Isabel Hilton said. In addition, the Chinese press is becoming more professional, and there is now a huge choice of home-made magazines and newspapers in the market. Hilton was concerned that this growth in the market may suggest that local media is now enough for the Chinese consumer.

However, there were different opinions from the audience in the seminar. A Chinese journalist said that the Tibet riot is a fairly exceptional case. The Chinese people's distrust of foreign media on the Tibet issue does not necessarily mean they distrust foreign media on other issues.