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'Cancer village' publicity a double-edged sword

By An Baijie (China Daily)

08:19, May 07, 2012

One of the most confusing issues for me while talking to local residents in the so-called "cancer village" was the role journalists were playing in reporting the scandal.

Before I reached the village, I assumed that the villagers would give us a warm welcome in appreciation of our reporting of the truth, which, for various reasons, could have been covered up.

However, things were not as I had imagined.

Some of the villagers extended hospitality to us. They told us about their diseases, showed us around and asked us to push the local government to resolve their problems.

But many others were not happy with our arrival.

Wang Baojiang, a village official, complained that the news report about the high rate of cancer had ruined the village's reputation.

"It's all because of you reporters that our village was labeled a 'cancer village', which made all of the residents here feel ashamed," he told me.

During our interviews in the village, the official followed us. When we started our car engine, he would do the same, to catch up with us.

"I'm not clear about your purpose, and I'm afraid your reports may demonize the village," he said.

Hao Shuying, a 41-year-old woman who lives in the village, said that although stomach cancer claimed her father's life three years ago, she does not like the fact that the outside world knows the village for its high cancer rate.

"Now that people nationwide have heard about the 'cancer village', fewer women will want to marry men from here," Hao said, adding that she has two unmarried sons.

Her older son is serving in the army and will reach the legal marriage age - 22 for men - within three years. Hao is concerned about whether he will be able to manage to win the heart of any woman now.

The dramatic headline containing the words "cancer village" appeared on many websites. And that is exactly why I went to cover the story - because it sounded sensational.

It seemed that reporters and editors to some extent ignore the feelings of local villagers when they labeled the place as a "cancer village". Every human being possesses self-esteem, including those who need help.

However, if reporters and editors have not created such sensational headlines, the story would have attracted less attention from the public, and the local government would have neglected the problem just as it did before.

The news report ruined a village's reputation, but it also helped produce the money to drill a well. The county government said it planned to give the village 500,000 yuan ($79,000) immediately after the problem was exposed.

The village official also admitted that he had been asking the local government to finance a new well for the village for five years, but all of his requests were neglected until the news media unveiled the scandal.

A new kind of paradigm has been developed to settle many social problems nowadays: Scandals reported by news media attract public attention and finally push the government to resolve the problem in a transparent way.

In such a paradigm, journalists play complex roles - are they angels who bring justice and love, or devils casting shadows?

However, my confusion about that issue was later resolved by a villager's words.

"The bad reputation is short-term pain that will be gone soon, and the label 'cancer village' will be removed automatically after the new drilled well brings health back to us," said the villager. "As a result, the reporters are doing the right things."

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