How the Chinese media act in covering the U.S. Presidential Election

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On Oct.26th, it is a great pleasure to hear a speech hosted by College of Social Science and Humanity here in Northeastern, delivering a short discussion of the ongoing U.S. presidential elections and future of relations with China. The panelists are all basically experienced researchers and scholars from Political Science field who have been focusing on Sino-US relations for years on different aspects. And the director of School of Journalism, Joanthan Kaufman, who used to serve as the China Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal and lived in China for years, provided a great perspectives as a journalist who worked in China for few years regarding the media coverage of the election.

Kaufman said that compared to the election in 2008, media have provided Chinese citizens with much more accessibility to the elections through different ways, either through live broadcasting with simultaneous translation from other major American media streams, or through stories and commentaries of analysis about the debates or predictions of the election results.

Trump’s media coverage is way more than Clinton’s – the ratio of Trump’s sex tape to Hillary’s email scandal is 7 to 1 according to American news media. While in China, Trump is also covered way more than Clinton. Unlike the U.S. citizens, the Chinese citizens were not familiar with Donald Trump at all before he announced his presidential campaign, but they are pretty familiar with Clinton, who used to serve as the First Lady and now as the Secretary of State. Trump’s “craziness” and “ignorance”, ascribed by Suzanne Ogden, the professor of Political Science here at Northeastern, about politics translated from Chinese media to the Chinese citizens as if he is a kind of “entertainment” who makes no political sense while Clinton is a much more experienced politician “who does all the talking but no actions” – Chinese media called the election as the battle between a “liar” and a “psycho”.

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Even though CCTV (China Central Television) doesn’t provide a huge amount of coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign this time, compared to the election in 2008, the Chinese media has definitely increased the coverage of the election this year, especially with the rising of social media. The Chinese media are still under strict censorship by the Party for the U.S. election, but they are just not as strict as the coverage of issues such as South China Sea or Hong Kong as we learned from one of the case studies in class.

The reason that Chinese leadership thinks it’s ok to take a close look at democracy at work rather than a threat to Chinese leadership is that the government considers the election a way to show the citizens how it sees the American electoral democratic system, according Ogden. The system shows candidates, for example, like Trump, who seems to be a total outsider of politics that they are trying to appeal to their supporters for more financial support to run the campaign and the corruption and dishonesty in American democratic political system. Ogden argued that seemingly the Party is using the U.S. election as a way to “criticize” the “so-called democracy” in western nations. According to Bowen News Agency, the Party actually has already enforced a media policy that news agencies should try to minimize the any arguments raised in the election against the party or promoting American democracy, but cover the scandals and negative sides of the presidential electoral system as much as possible. I can’t judge the fact that media are being used as political tools is ethical or not, speaking on behalf of my country. However, there are critical flaws during the process – people know about the election and what’s going on about the election, but not many of them understand how the system works – what most of Chinese people see is just something on the surface but they have no idea how the political system works differently in the U.S. than China. It is hard for the Chinese people to understand the whole political system from news if the journalists are providing only half of the story.

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As a Chinese journalist, especially working in mainland China, there is no way the journalist refuses to follow the orders and prohibition from the Party if that journalist wants keep doing journalism. Kaufman told us about his experience while working as the China Bureau Chief of The Wall Street Journal few years ago, “I told the Chinese journalists we might write about this, but they told me, ‘yeah, you can tell me about it, but we can’t publish it’.” When we were talking about the media censorship in China, we have somehow reached an agreement that it is not a bad policy but a protection for its people, as well as the Party’s leadership and power. However, the journalists shouldn’t give up achieving ethical journalistic goals by providing information as much as possible under the circumstances. Personally, I am not suggesting that reporting should be slipping through the Party’s orders, while there are something that we as professional and ethical journalists could do to provide more information and leave more room for the readers without acting against the Party:

a) Providing enough and accurate background information about American presidential electoral system without comparing it verbally with Chinese political environment – such as how campaign works, the meaning of “Super Tuesday,” and the exact schedule of the whole process until the final day.

b) Do some live reporting or coverage via Internet. Some web portals like Sina, iFeng and Sohu, or news streaming websites like Huanqiu and Refrenece News, the only two legitimized news organizations that can quote from foreign media, should be better utilized to report on foreign affairs. What we journalists should do is to provide people with more information about what’s actually going on, both on the surface and at behind the scene, and then leave the space for the audiences to make judgements by the readers themselves.

c) Maybe the journalists should do more commentaries as well as reporting, particularly in terms of Sino-US relation in the near future. This is tricky though. Technically, it is not covering stories; however, commentators tend to provide more background information than normal news coverage, which may make more sense to the readers about the political system in the U.S.

These are only my personal suggestions to optimize Chinese coverage of foreign affairs, especially when it comes politics. I am aware of that the suggestions can be very hard to achieved, but at least it is the direction that Chinese media should try very hard to achieve someday in the near future.

Even though Chinese citizens are not going to vote anyway, the new administration – either Trump or Hilary becomes the president, will be critical to Sino- U.S. relations. That’s why the debate mentions China for thousands of times, or the Pivot, or East Asian in general ; also it is the reason that the Chinese people are so curious about the result which will just happen in few days. It is understandable that the Party uses media as a political tool, while from the point of view of journalism, not providing the whole story is never going to be considered as ethical. As Chinese journalists, I think it’s important to follow the Party just for our own sakes; but also, it is more important to maximize journalistic goals to increase people’s understanding of the story we are covering as professional media practitioners, for both being ethical and responsible for the readers.

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*Just a updated paragraph added to the original post:

A lot of Chinese media also covered the election last night (Nov.8th) with simultaneous translation and electoral college provided and updated. There are two aspects of the Chinese coverage I found really interesting to discuss about: 

The electoral college that Chinese media provided seems always a step forward than most of the U.S. media streams such as The New York Times and CNN. I am not sure where did they get the information from or either they have checked and verified the validity of the information because they are not citing the source, but it did provide the audience a false information, regardless how obvious the result turned out to be.

And also, around 1 a.m., I saw push notifications from my Chinese news apps saying Trump has been elected president, which the election hasn’t ended yet actually even though Trump was in the leading place. Speaking of ethical codes, I don’t really think that’s something journalists should do, making decisions before the results really come out. Regardless of the final result either Trump or Hillary won at last, that’s not a responsible action posting something is still undergoing to the people who are watching. 

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How the Chinese media act in covering the U.S. Presidential Election

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