It took a missing airliner for Chinese media to realize they were no good at reporting

Reporters try to interview a new batch of Chinese relatives of passengers as they arrive at a hotel in Malaysia.
Reporters try to interview a new batch of Chinese relatives of passengers as they arrive at a hotel in Malaysia.
Image: AP Images / Aaron Favila
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The media criticism started the day Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing. International reporters outside of China and social media inside the country reported news of the missing plane minutes after the airline announced it had been lost. But it took Chinese state broadcaster CCTV more than an hour to mention it on air, and it was several hours more before serious coverage got underway.

The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid, has published a lengthy self-criticism of the media industry, as part of a broader conversation that is taking place post-MH370. The big question: Why are China’s journalists so passive?

The piece quoted Yang Jinlin, a former anchorman of Phoenix TV, who wrote on his Sina Weibo:

When foreign media were questioning whether the Malaysian government had been covering up the truth, Chinese media were complaining about the delay to the press conference. When foreign media were calculating the flight routes of the missing airplane, Chinese media were repeatedly calling on people to light candles and pray for the return of the passengers.

It’s not that China is completely devoid of intrepid journalists—one look at the political reporting of Southern Weekend or the economic reporting of Caixin proves that. But it’s clear that many journalists at China’s huge array of state-run media outlets have a long way to go in the basics of digging into a developing story.

As the Global Times relates, in the wake of the MH370 disappearance, more than 80 Chinese news outlets flew staff to Kuala Lumpur. But most of them lacked local contacts, knowledge of aviation issues, and proficiency in English, making them solely reliant on the Malaysian government’s daily briefings (which were often inconsistent or erroneous) for information. While western outlets worked their sources for news on the plane, many Chinese outlets stuck to interviewing the families of the passengers, while citing developments that were reported by foreign outlets.

“Constant coverage of the relatives exhausted people’s patience. Instead of hearing sentimental reports, Chinese audiences needed more. They wanted the truth,” Qinglei of the CCTV program 24 Hours told the Global Times.

Much journalism in China is about rewriting official government announcements. And even for stories where censorship is largely a non-issue—such as the MH370 disappearance—few reporters have the skills necessary to seize the initiative and do original reporting.

Wang Wei, a pseudonymous financial journalist for the news portal QQ.com, complained to the Global Times that when he was dispatched to Malaysia he had, “no connection with the local government, and [didn’t] even have acquaintances who could tell us whom [he] should talk to.” It was his first time reporting outside of China.