Since the new millennium, the powerful effects of online news, forums, and microblogging in China have given rise to a judgment among both media professionals and media researchers that new media is crippling and defeating traditional media in every battle. Looking back at the role of the Internet in various events that have garnered national attention in recent years appears to support such a claim. Discussions over the Yihuang self-immolation incident, Guo Meimei case, and Wenzhou high speed train crash, to name a few, mainly originated and were coordinated through Sina's microblogging service, Weibo.
The power of the Internet in fostering robust public dialogue even has traditional media singing its praises. After the train crash, media as diverse as China Youth Daily, Caijing magazine and Xinhua extolled Weibo's role as outperforming and defeating traditional media in reshaping public opinion and policy.
But the effects of new media effects should not be understood superficially and statically. Increasing interactions, which are enabled by processes of digitalization and innovations of the Internet, between different kinds of media contribute to a Renaissance-like social psychology in present China.
Three ways of dividing media in China consist of a first division between newspapers, television, and online media, which runs along a thread of technological evolution; a second division between local, provincial and national media, which follows a line of space and hierarchy; and a third division between official, commercial and citizen media, which is based on the three dominant social actors — state, market and civil society.
Contrasts and controversies over the performance of media mainly focus on the way traditional media – official media in particular – responds to an event. One of the most remarkable instances involved the local traditional media in Xiamen, which played a role against a local residents' campaign to halt the construction of a chemical plant in the outskirts of the coastal city. All local media outlets in Xiamen stood in line with local authorities, while local online communities protested, accusing peaceful demonstrators of being, in the words of Xiamen Evening News, "mischief producers, troublemakers, order challengers, stability destroyers, and law stompers."
Of the sources quoted by Xiamen Daily and Xiamen Evening News between May 25 and July 10, 2007, in their coverage of the incident, 60 percent were local officials. In contrast, residents composed only 18 percent, and they were deliberately selected to support an official position.
Traditional media at higher levels, such as CCTV, and in other regions, such as the Beijing Times, reported the same event differently. Citizen journalists of the Xiamen city forum on Tianya found that among 94 posts directly quoting from traditional media stories, one-third of the posts were from local Xiamen media for condemnation, while two-thirds were from outside media for support.
In the Xiamen case, local traditional media was compromised in confrontations between the local administration and citizens because of its intimacy with political power. But not all the instances that led to hasty accusations of traditional media involved political intervention. Other factors often derive from purely professional or technical aspects. People rushed to criticize CCTV for their being "slow" to cover the Wenzhou train crash. But the criticism was misplaced. It is impossible for CCTV or traditional media of any kind to compete in speed with Weibo users who were on the trains. Second, there is no need for CCTV, which is national and highly influential, to stretch disaster reporting into a marathon, particularly in the wake of a lesson learned from the report of Japan's nuclear crisis, in which intense and lasting coverage contributed to a public panic.
Media of all forms, spaces and actors are networked together in a rapidly turning wheel, or in Peter Dahlgren's words, a media matrix that is "non-static and ever-evolving." With this in mind, having an "official news" is a blessing, not a curse as some commentators would say, because it facilitates dialogue between citizens and state in a digitalized and networked dynamic media landscape.
It is Weibo's connection to other Internet platforms and mass media that produced qualitative changes. What is in question is not how one medium beats another but how interactions between different media help sustain democratic practices and values. A narrow-minded understanding of the interactions between old and new media as confrontational rather than dialogical does not see the key shared values between Chinese reporters beyond their media affiliations. As long as a democratic process and end prevails, everyone wins.
Xu Peixi is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/xupeixi.htm
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