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When is something newsworthy?

In early January, writer and educator Wu Fei put up a blog post discussing how reporters pick news stories. Last week's Southern Weekly republished it in the op-ed section, minus the first paragraph, which perhaps seemed a bit too much in light of the Lan Chengzhang killing.

News comes to them that wait

by Wu Fei

Because I had written an article titled "Future Popular Professions," young people mistakenly thought that I was a career guidance person, and they asked me for direction. I talked about how a news reporters was great thing to be: don't listen to everyone's BS and think that being a journalist is dangerous as hell, that after you've written a report on something, there'll be people waiting in an alley to cap you when you get off work at night, or when you're going out with your wife, you get in the car and it blows up with a bang....nothing like that; being a reporter is safe.

Some things aren't news. Kid, see across the road where they're demolishing that buildings? Seven stories, not 20 years old, still strong as anything. I'd have thought they'd use controlled demolition; never imagined they'd take it apart by hand, hire a bunch of laborers, swinging at it with sledgehammers. It's cheaper that way, apparently. Yes, if it was controlled demolition, then the demolition company makes money and the foreman's take drops. And what will all those workers do for food? They've got babies at home waiting for school tuition.

The next one isn't news, either. Kid, do you see it? Those workers swinging sledgehammers on the building — some are jumping about right on top of the crumbling walls, but not one is wearing a safety harness! If one was to fall, he'd be injured if not killed. Why are they so unafraid of death? Why doesn't the foreman force them to wear safety harnesses? Why don't the parties involved pay attention to the safety of the workers? Many people pass by this work site every day; how many people are thinking about this problem?

—— of course, none of this is news, either.

It's 5:30 in the afternoon and the school along the road has let out. Kid, can you see how this wide road has been totally stopped up with cars? Look carefully — these are all cars come to pick up students, with all kinds of plates. This isn't special, it's not news. Do you see it? Most of the cars are parked illegally, and none of them are using good driving habits. Look, those dozen cars over there have gone up into the bicycle lane — how dangerous! The parents only have eyes for their own children — no sense of social morality and no thought for the safety of other students. Kid, you're apathetic perhaps because you think that none of this matters.

The above isn't news.

What follows might be news.

If — note, "if" — one day, the building across the street that's being demolished suddenly collapses and several workers are crushed under it — perish the thought — reporters from all over will hurry to the scene, firefighters will come charging over, military police will come running, emergency rescue will come, and onlookers will number in thousands....most important is that the mayor and the municipal party secretary will come, the provincial governor and provincial party secretary will immediately issue instructions, and even the central government leadership will immediately issue instructions to spare no expense during the rescue....investigate the cause of the accident, take care of redress, and deal severely with the persons responsible for the accident....the relevant parties will reiterate this....

One day, a parent will be in a car to pick up a kid from school and the car will suddenly go out of control, striking and killing several students, or a stuck car will burst into flames and burn a group of students — perish the thought — reporters from all over will hurry to the scene, firefighters will come charging over, military police will come, emergency rescue will come, and onlookers will number in thousands....most important is that the mayor and the municipal party secretary will come, the provincial governor and provincial party secretary will immediately issue instructions, and even the central government leadership will immediately issue instructions to spare no expense during the rescue....investigate the cause of the accident, take care of redress, and deal severely with the persons responsible for the accident....the relevant parties will reiterate this....

If you become a reporter, then you could spend your days working like this. If you write a report saying that laborers who do not wear safety harnesses should not be allowed to work heights, or that the transportation department should install cameras in the area around schools, not only will no one pay any attention to you, but you might even get people thinking that you are out to cause trouble; rob the masses of their enjoyment of the news, and papers have no selling point.

News is always waited out. To elaborate, it's waiting for people to make mistakes; if we go seeking out trouble and make preparations beforehand, if we resist scrambling about chasing news and are only willing to put effort into avoiding catastrophe, then we're really not up with the times.

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There are currently 5 Comments for When is something newsworthy?.

Comments on When is something newsworthy?

Excellent.

Wu Fei makes the point that if a reporter draws attention to preventative measures, the result will be that "not only will no one pay any attention to you, but you might even get people thinking that you are out to cause trouble [Joel's translation]."

This seems true. I would suggest that the reason is not that people here aren't aware of the types of problems listed above (viz. worker safety issues, illegal vehicle licenses and traffic safety violations); in fact the reason the author chose these particular illustrations is presumably precisely because they're ubiquitous. So why isn't there a public outcry for better supervision in such areas?

The following is merely my personal perspective: there is a general desire to derive as much benefit from the imperfections of the system as possible before they are fixed, and a tacit general consensus that fixing them is ultimately desirable and inevitable (after all, the alternative could well be dangerous social unrest). 'Ultimately' is the operative word here: the reason there isn't a push to solve these problems more quickly is that too many people benefit from them. Everyone knows that far greater profits are available to those who break the rules rather than those who follow them.

Having said that, not everyone is in a position to break the rules for their personal benefit. However, I suspect that if you look into the dealings of every car owner mentioned above, all - without exception - have broken the rules for their personal benefit. It is precisely their lack of social responsibility that has gotten them ahead.

There are a few points I'd like to add here:

1. People like migrant workers derive very little benefit from the current situation; on the contrary, they are often brutally exploited. However, those better off than them lack the political will to change the system, for the reason I mentioned above: they want to capitalize on the opportunities it presents.

2. It's unrealistic to expect the people profiting from the problems in a system to push for change - at least until enough of them have profited enough that their priority becomes the inconveniences given by the system rather than its opportunities.

3. It has been mentioned elsewhere that many contemporary urban Chinese are abusive, unable to apologize, and generally lack social ethics (I am using this term loosely - please allow me to avoid a detailed examination of mainland Chinese cultural standards regarding ethics). As long as circumstances in China make such characteristics profitable, they will proliferate. Such a system certainly seems to nourish the seeds of its own destruction. What keeps this system viable for the time being is that enough people want it to continue long enough for themselves to profit. They want profit now and a harmonious society later. It is no coincidence that President Hu's catchphrase promises an idealized vision rather than an immediate plan of action.

my 2 jiao

A great piece. Thank you for posting it.

As I am an obnoxious blowhard, I want to post one more rant working off the same quotation as before, in reference to investigative reportage: "not only will no one pay any attention to you, but you might even get people thinking that you are out to cause trouble [Joel's translation]."

Of course, this comes on the heels of a highly publicized incident involving a 'fake' reporter who was indeed "out to cause trouble". The reason I put the word 'fake' in scare quotes is that many (perhaps most) news organizations in the PRC use the threat of negative coverage to extort businesses. The only difference between Lan Chengzhang (the now-deceased 'fake' reporter recently in the news) and many 'real' reporters is that the former was working for himself, whereas the actions of the latter are backed by their organizations.

I worked (briefly) at a PRC news organization, and personally overheard an extortion conducted over the phone while I was in the office.

So what is my point? It is threefold (at least my two comments are consistent in this respect):

1. The reason PRC reporters are viewed with such suspicion is entirely justified.

2. This state of affairs is fundamentally the result of a formely state-owned media that has now become commercial without being free. Each organization has the pressure to become its own profit center without having the liberty to provide the public service of keeping government and business institutions transparent and thereby answerable for their actions.

3. This supports an argument for the importance of a free press for the development and protection of a civil society, and suggests that economic development without social freedoms (viz. freedom of expression) is an extremely dangerous long-term strategy, as it allows for (and even promotes) so many abuses that threaten the social fabric.

It seems the current government is working toward the eventual establishment of social freedoms - but only in a certain context, in which they remain at the top of the power structure. It remains to be seen whether this gambit will be successful.

End of rant.

Cheers

Maybe that's right, but I think there is a big element of lack-of-preventative-measures to this too that is found all over the place in modern Chinese society.

For example, I am currently in the process of having a root canal done. The reason I am having a root canal done is because the hard to clean space between two of my molars rotted from plaque. The reason it rotted from plaque is because my dentist in Weifang refused to clean my teeth. My dentist in Weifang refused to clean my teeth because in China people typically go to the dentist once they already have a problem with their teeth, not as a preventative measure, and since my teeth were already "clean" and didn't have any "problems" the dentist wouldn't touch them.

Sounds like a stretch, right? Well, you are not the one going through a root canal.

Hi Kevin

I don't think it's a stretch at all, and of course I hope your visit to the dentist stays as far removed from gruesome as possible.

In fact, unless I missed your point, it seems like my lengthy rants and your concise comment entirely compliment one another.

Here's how I see it: Everyone in today's China wants to maximize profit with as little effort as possible. Why would a dentist want to perform lots of cheap cleanings when he can just as easily force his clientelle to pay more for essentially the same ammount of work? Your well-being is not his primary concern.

Again, he is using a lack of oversight, legal enforcement, etc. to take full advantage of - in this case - you.

This is one reason that everyone keeps saying guanxi is so important: if you had the right connections, he wouldn't dare to refuse you a routine cleaning. It seems you don't, or didn't negotiate well on your previous visit. This is an example of a case in which being a 'fake' journalist can come in handy.

Your situation seems like a case in point to me.

Good luck!

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