On February 9th, Wuhan Evening News published a story entitled “Young Mother Nurses 6-month Baby Into Cerebral Palsy,” that described a distraught mother who turned to infant formula to cure her child, based on the advice of a local doctor that her breast milk was the culprit behind her baby’s illness.
The newspaper article set off a storm of posts on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, among a small but growing number of breastfeeding advocates that eventually led Wuhan Evening to publish another story a few days later clarifying that breast milk does not lead to cerebral palsy.
This is one instance in which microblogs in China have influenced the mainstream media’s reporting of an event, but there are many more. Although the mainstream media in China rarely retracts or re-publishes stories in response to Internet sentiments, as in the case of Wuhan Evening News, the watchdog effect is felt throughout the blogosphere, and often leads to discussions about the value of social media in journalism.
Print media in the West and in China have realized that the Internet was both its savior and executioner. It didn’t take them long to respond–every major news outlet in the world now has a web presence, a Facebook page, a Twitter account (in China’s case, an account on each major microblog platform) as well as a hand in dozens of other platforms that provide everything from market research to localized, on-the-spot news. But perhaps the greatest change is not in the tools used, but in the way different people with different tools now interact.
Out with the old, in with the new
In the past, journalists were a breed apart, writing from their desks in a closed-off newsroom and using secret sources and gumshoe reporting to fill the daily paper. That isolation has been completely broken down as citizens become information gatherers and disseminators. The upside is that information is abundant and often breaking, but the downside is that once information enters the blogosphere, it can be hard to verify and control.
The first glimpse into the power of citizen journalism and the new relationship between citizens and journalists was in Iran. In 2008-’09, the Green movement there used cell phones and microblogs to send pictures, texts, and videos carrying their message to the world at large, despite government’s autocratic efforts to control information. That movement died down, but from its ashes sprang movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and elsewhere.
The key to these movements was not access to the Internet, or even to information. (In a country like Egypt, not everyone has access to the Internet, or would know how to use it even if they did.) Instead, it was the interaction between established gatekeepers and new social media to create as transparent and honest a narrative as possible.
The mainstream and new media join hands, awkwardly
The relationship between established media and new media is still experiencing growing pains, as was evident in the mainstream media reaction to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Not only did mainstream media not really “get it” in the beginning, stepping in only when an event provided them with a lede, but they also retreated once the threat of violence receded.
What did traditional media miss? OWS captured a feeling, but was unable to synthesize itself into something the mainstream could swallow. The mainstream media was confronted with the confusing, at times overwhelming, true voice of the people, undiluted and unsimplified, and it didn’t know exactly how to respond.
Social media, as has been the case so far across the world, far outpaces traditional media in what are essentially scoops–but the established vanguard of journalists, and their respected venues, still have the greater impact. No matter how breaking the news within social media, it isn’t until the traditional media picks it up that the impact can be felt outside of the social media platforms from which it originated.
A case in point would be The Guardian’s recent article on Internet censorship in China, “China’s censors tested by microbloggers who keep one step ahead of state media.” Its author, Tania Branigan, has a very active Twitter account (7,800 Tweets, 8,000 Followers) and has established a presence and a relationship with China-related social media platforms that makes for a fruitful micro-blogger-journalist relationship. Without this piece, by an established and respected traditional media outlet, little of the various scraps of information picked up by the China Media Project, floating around Twitter and Weibo, and deposited piecemeal on blogs and small news sites would have reached the mainstream.
But this relationship can backfire on the professional journalists who had sought to exploit it. In November 2011, CNN fired 50 photojournalists due to “technological advances and workflow changes”–which basically meant that citizen-journalists with smartphones replaced professional photographers with the latest Canon. Indeed, most traditional media outlets and journalists have felt the squeeze of the Internet in the form of lower pay, layoffs, and lower subscription rates.
Blogging the lede from underneath a blanket
In China the heavy hand of government censorship adds a different dynamic to the microblogger-journalist relationship. Traditional media here are well aware of the power of platforms like Weibo and are just as savvy when it comes to gleaning information, picking up on big stories or incorporating “netizen’s view” into a story.
The Wenzhou Train Crash and Bo Xilai’s dramatic fall, in particular, demonstrated the ability of citizens to be first on the scene with news tips, frame the agenda of the news and help mainstream journalists focus their stories. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has a habit of blacking-out the traditional media, as it did with the train accident, or dictating the headlines outright, as it did concerning Bo Xilai’s ouster.
However in other, less politically sensitive cases, microblogs and mainstream media can work together to cover a story. For example, Weibo users uncovered a shipment of live dogs in Kunming on April 18–dogs meant for the meat market–and quickly mobilized to save the dogs and spread the news through mainstream media.
But such activism does not seem to be tolerated, Weibo users have already had related posts deleted and posts on a similar story from last April were erased from both the mainstream media and Weibo.
Yet even with heavy government censorship, Chinese Weibo users and their mainstream counterparts have much the same relationship as Western journalists do with Twitter: They exchange information, work off of each other, discuss topics and in some cases cite each others’ work.
Mainstream media outlets utilize citizen journalism for breaking news and microbloggers are becoming more savvy with their reporting. Manzi Digest, a daily summary of hot Weibo topics founded by angel investor Charles Xue (@薛蛮子), is one notable example of microblogs crossing into the mainstream news arena. In China however, the relationship is much like a forbidden love affair with the authority figure — in this case the Party — constantly sticking his nose in.
Why the mainstream-blogger symbiosis is good for journalism
The relationship between the two different media might be strained and nuanced–as traditional outlets fight to stay relevant (and solvent) in a micro-blog world–but the relationship between journalists and bloggers is a symbiotic one, in which both sides benefit from working together.
The recent Bo Xilai scandal is a clear example. Everything began with Weibo users posting about tanks on the road from Chongqing to Chengdu (later proven to be unrelated to the incident), Wang Lijun on the run and eventually on a possible coup in Beijing. The Bo family link with Heywood began on Weibo. Professional journalists followed up, using the full power of their newsrooms to locate the Bo family financial records, discover the hotel where Heywood was found dead, hunt down and interview Bo Guagua and make sense of all of the loose threads and complex connections that make up the Chinese political scene.
The transformation of the journalist from gatekeeper into information sharer is a direct result of the undeniable usefulness of microblogs. The idea that information on microblogs is mostly rumor has not been completely tossed aside, but traditional media have stepped down from their lofty posts atop the news gathering pole and are treating microblogs with respect. Bloggers, in turn, gain recognition, if that is what they seek, and the satisfaction that comes with being the first to report on the news. Traditional media outlets link to blogs and vice versa; the journalists and bloggers re-tweet each other, keep in constant contact and work together to muckrake on the big story.
The concept of objectivity, long the holy grail of journalists across the world, has been transformed as well. No longer is objectivity the attempt by a writer to show all sides and be as far removed from the story as possible. The key in the new era seems to be transparency of the discovery process. Where did the initial lead come from? Who reported it and how? What happened next? When a journalist for a mainstream media outlet sat down to write a story, what sources did she use and how can she be sure those sources are not bogus?
This new development is a monumental one for the freedom of information and the concept of the Internet as an egalitarian space. Citizens can influence and manipulate opinion as never before–for good or for ill–and they can have real-time conversation with the “gatekeepers” of the news anytime they want. Microblogs like Twitter and Sina Weibo generate news, snoop it out, and hold it up to the light for closer examination. Then traditional media steps in, acting as aggregators, analysts and synthesizers of new information.
As long as the conversation remains robust, transparent and focused on veracity and accountability, then the future of journalism looks sound. In fact, it looks awesome.