Foreigners when they meet me often ask: "How do you see journalistic work in China?" I give a typical, and sincere answer: "Many of us are dedicated to looking for information behind the scenes and reporting the truth, while admittedly there are also those performing the relatively easy task of simply attending press conferences and collecting red envelopes of cash. Finally there are those who simply make it all up."
Professional journalists and the public despise this commonplace practice in China. It is under these circumstances that authorities including the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee last week launched a crackdown on extortion and fake news.
The threshold for being a journalist in China is low. While courageous journalists uncover corruption, fake journalists seek to profit from media's influence.
In 2012, China Central Television (CCTV) alleged that luxury furniture retailer Da Vinci was not being honest about its product labeling. Da Vinci accused a CCTV reporter of extorting money in exchange for silencing the reports. Further investigation showed the company did have quality problems and the reporter involved didn't take money, but there were problems with the report using unidentified sources and drawing ramshackle conclusions.
The whole story was an indication of the entanglement between media and sources and how China's media loosely functions. As Yu Guoming of the Renmin University School of Journalism and Communication once said, the media needs stricter and operable press regulations.
But there are also worries that the latest crackdown may tighten authorities' control over the press and give leeway to officials who want to keep their hidden deals out of the spotlight.
These worries are not unreasonable. In the past few years, the public has learned about the division of interests between local officials and ordinary people. There were stories like officials illicitly fund-raising or selling villagers' land without offering enough compensation for them that resulted in clashes. In the name of "maintaining social stability," these officials will try every possible means to block such negative news. Meanwhile as such stories reinforce negative perceptions of officials, sometimes thinly sourced or even fake reports of fearful officials gain ground.
Officials should have a clear understanding of the media's role as a supervisory watchdog that endeavors to correct wrongs. At the same time, the media should be scrutinized to ensure accurate information, as society still needs a vibrant media environment.