Crisis events—which had long been seen as a sensitive area in China—could only be reported by the state media, and consequently, reflecting only the government side. Such reports concentrate on authorities’ efforts in tackling the crisis as well as the heroic behaviour of leaders involved—seldom could touch more serious questions such as why the crisis events happened and who should be blamed. Even in 2003 the epidemic of SARS, the government kept a tight rein on news reporting of the outbreak.
However, since 2010 the massive use of Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) the rise of citizen journalism has been challenging the power of state media, especially in crisis reporting. Media expert Wei Wuhui thinks, “traditional media, especially newspapers, failed in reporting breaking news every time, the Shanghai stampede once again proves that the newspaper is dying”.
The crush happened in Shanghai’s historic Bund on the New Year’s Eve around 11:35pm, which caused the death of 36 people and 49 injuries. In the next two hours, tourists and citizens on the scene posted pictures on social media platforms such as Weibo and Wechat, showing people crowding and some lying on the ground.
Traditional media was criticized by its slow follow-up of the story. The stampede was not reported by the local media, like Dongfang Morning post and Wenhui newspaper, until January 2rd.
Actually, they have reasons to defend themselves. On one hand, it is unrealistic for newspapers to print a comprehensive article including 5 W’s and 1 H in such a short time—perhaps where and when are easy to know, but what led to the accident, who were the casualties, how the accident happened, need time to confirm. On the other hand, it is a common rule that the next day’s newspaper has already been printed at midnight, therefore changing the content may lead to financial loss. More importantly, traditional media in China, especially newspapers, need to seek authorization for reporting breaking news especially disasters and crises, however, the permission was impossible to obtain during evenings, so no newspapers covered the story on January 1st. Other traditional platforms, like TV and radio, could not send correspondents in the 20 minutes’ crush and as a result, could not have enough materials like footage or audio from the scene. So when they began to publish the story, most used the photographs and videos from social media.
Traditional media has an established process to produce objective, impartial and fair news items, which limits the reporting speed. For the crisis events, audiences are eager to know what happens at first time and it is obvious citizen journalism has more advantages at this point. Perhaps, the dying of traditional media is not a Chinese character, it is a worldwide phenomenon. But it is more obvious and significant in non-democratic societies, given that the state-owned media was so powerful as the only source of information in the past. It is a fact that citizen journalism is rising and traditional media is dying in crisis reporting. Meanwhile, isn’t it sad if we only want the speed but neglect the depth and quality of the story?