It’s a common view that standards in mainstream Chinese journalism have been deteriorating for some time now. But when disaster strikes – for example, as in the Tianijn explosions – it is not just firefighters rushing towards the scene. Journalists follow close behind. The public know that their most reliable source of information during these fast moving events are the reports filed from the scene by professional reporters.
China’s news industry has seen huge changes in the past several years, and even the most optimistic of observers admit these have not been for the better. Commercial and political challenges have hindered traditional media doing its job.
And “traditional” here does not just mean television, radio and print media – it includes all reporting, including online and personal websites or blogs, which embody the core values of journalists and seek to protect the public interest. But many good journalists have left the industry and as quality investigative journalism departments have been closed down, and the number of exposés has dwindled. Now, the commercial media is mainly a business rather than a public institution carrying out a moral mission.
But in times of disaster, when the public needs to know the truth, those working in the media bravely fulfil their duties.
The morning after the huge explosions in Tianjin last August, many journalists were already on the scene, including Tu Zhonghang of the Beijing News.
He had rushed to the disaster zone, and managed to get into the control room where the fight to contain the disaster was being supervised. From there, he was able to get a major exclusive, learning that 700 tonnes of highly toxic sodium cyanide had once been stored at the site.
Tu was one of over 20 reporters dispatched by the Beijing News, and in the week after the disaster he and his newspaper printed dozens of pages covering the explosion. Journalists and editors focussed their investigations on what had happened to those 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide; and the mysterious background of the site’s owner, Ruihai Logistics. This led to a series of exclusive investigations, and by getting the truth out quickly at a time of crisis, the Beijing News earned new respect for the news media.
Coverage of the explosion involved “reporters working as a team on a huge story, maintaining professionalism and producing comprehensive and objective reports, and leading all other major outlets,” points out Professor Jiang, one of the judges for chinadialogue’s press awards.
This year Tu and his colleagues won the 'Best Investigation' prize. Their reports on this major incident were both rapid and in-depth. Despite the time pressure they were able to deliver a series of scoops – a fine example to the rest of the industry.
The China Youth Daily also provided much fine detail on the same incident and their journalists are winners of the 'Best In-Depth Report' award.
The explosion worried many residents of port cities – were they also living next door to a warehouse full of hazardous chemicals? The China Youth Daily dispatched reporters Liu Xin, He Linlin and Lu Yijie to three major ports: Shanghai, Ningbo and Qingdao.
During a month-long investigation, they found many hazardous sites were within 1,000 metres of residential buildings, in breach of a safety rule. The reporting team also identified the risk of a major chemical explosion causing numerous deaths and huge property damage could happen at other ports besides Tianjin.
Previously, this major risk has consistently been overlooked in the media. Thepaper.cn also investigated the reasons why the required distances between hazardous storage and residential property were not adhered to. It reported on how safety standards could be improved in other cities. The paper’s work fulfils the responsibility Joseph Pulitzer spoke of: “A journalist is the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state…He peers through fog and storm to give warning of dangers ahead."
When judging this year’s awards, the committee was surprised. Although the mainstream news industry overall has been in decline, the number and quality of investigative reports on matters of public interest had actually increased.
A particularly praiseworthy example of this focused on a remote, ecologically sensitive area of western China that won its author 'Journalist of the Year'.
The Kalamely Nature Reserve in Xinjiang has repeatedly been shrunk to allow for mining, putting rare wildlife at risk. Shi Yi, a journalist with Thepaper.cn filed a series of reports on the issue, bringing the case to the attention of central government. A memo from Xi Jinping resulted in an undercover visit by Party Central Committee investigators, as well as a public visit by Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang Party Secretary. At the end of last year, the plans for the most recent reduction in the size of the reserve were scrapped.
In late September 2015 a source reported online that over 10,000 tonnes of chemical waste were buried under a pig farm in Jingjiang, Jiangsu, eastern China. Beijing Youth Daily reporter Li Xianfeng was the first to find that source and get first-hand evidence – and gain access to the now-sealed off farm to verify it.
His reporting is a fine example of reporting in the public interest, and it won Li our 'Most Influential Report' award.
Li’s exclusive interview with the source was key to the story – it managed to develop one online tip into a mainstream media story. That triggered rapid interventions by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, the Ministry of Public Security and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, which confirmed the veracity of the reports and are now managing the site, with 4,000 barrels of hazardous materials being removed.
Over 100 outstanding Chinese journalists have received prizes in the six years that our awards have been handed out. During this time we have seen for ourselves the decline of the news industry – but also seen many fine journalists bucking that trend by carrying on the baton of journalistic ideals and professionalism.
Journalism has never been an easy job, and those who possess the ideals and the strength of character of a good journalist will flourish even in the hard times – and it is perhaps the fact these journalists become so prominent that tells us we are more in need of quality journalism than ever.
Whether the industry is flourishing or in decline, journalists will always be among those first on the scene when disaster strikes. But they do not hope those disasters will occur. I hope society can give journalists the opportunity to report on the dangers of explosions in Tianjin, of harm to nature reserves in Xinjiang, of toxic waste buried in Jiangsu, of poisonous fluids in the Beijing water supply before those disasters actually happen and prevent them. That is the true value of journalism.
Our annual press awards were held in Beijing on Friday May 27.