A student of Journalism and Media, I have found particularly interesting studying and experiencing mass media and communication in different countries. America, Malaysia, Indonesia and now China have all offered very unique perspectives. Despite some very stark differences, they all reinforce the understanding of the mass media as a key component of society and its importance in engineering how people understand the world and how they interact with others.
The past few weeks here in Kunming, China, have been especially interesting. Following a local friend to her Editorial Column Writing class at Yunnan Normal University, I had a first hand look at the next generation of Chinese journalists and how they were being taught to approach their profession. Also, I went against the odds and walked into the Yunnan Province Daily News Industry Corporation, expecting the closed doors that a foreigner usually finds when independently searching for information here. However, I was pleasantly surprised when a curious security guard led to an anxious receptionist led to a round of phone calls led to an armed escort up to the 15th floor of the huge building for a fascinating hour and a half talk with a veteran, chain smoking newspaper journalist.
Visiting the journalism class at Normal University, I was taken aback by the familiarity of the situation. A large classroom was full of students looking very much like college students, their questioning of the status quo evident in their Che Guevarra tshirts and the occasional facial piercing. The teacher was a fashionable young woman who encouraged a lively discussion with the students as she presented the lesson. Despite the similarities, however, discussions with students and the professor were very illuminating. On the one hand, they recognized the fact that journalism and the nature of information in China is different than other countries. During the lecture, the professor used many examples of articles from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but only to illustrate certain points of style or format. In this class, it seemed, learning to write an editorial column was a matter of form.
If my visit to the University was a glimpse into the shaping of journalism in China, the experience at the Daily News Corporation was a window into the current practice of mass media here. I gained many insights, despite the need to ask the veteran newspaper journalist to slow down his spit-fire Kunming dialect and explain a few new vocabulary words.
The degree to which the news industry in China is centralized is perhaps one of the more telling aspects of that industry here. The reporter told me that the city of Kunming alone, the capitol of the Yunnan Province, has about 14 seperate newspapers. While they all have unique formats, styles, and contributors, the fact is that they are all produced in the same building, behind the one-way glass windows towering above XinWen Lu. At the end of the day, all of the individual publications report to the same boss in the office on the top floor.
The ownership of or the institutions that take on the task of producing mass media in China also highlight meaningful differences when compared to other countries. In America, for example, most of the media is owned and operated by private companies, corporations or organizations. In Malaysia, the major newspapers have very close ties to specific political interests. Considering that one entity has a virtual monopoly over the production of newspapers in the Yunnan Province, it is somehow unsurprising that the Yunnan Daily News Corporation has very close ties to the government. After speaking with journalism students, professors, and professional journalists, it is evident that a majority of the information published in the daily paper comes directly from the government. This by no means makes the information inaccurate â€“ it does, however, have a large impact in terms of what is not published and what does not enter the public discourse, as well as the angle from which news is approached.
The “engineered” nature of information in China is by no means a secret in China – it is well recognized by everyone I have spoken with. Several people, in fact, made the criticism that information is just as manipulated in Western countries as it is in China, but that neither the authorities responsible nor the masses admit to the manipulation. Response to this recognition has been mixed…