My friend Xu Haoyuan sent me two emails within a month about problems she encountered in news media coverage. Each illustrates how far some journalists nowadays have strayed from accuracy and truthfulness.
Xu manages the Beijing-based Heart-to-Heart Center for Behavioral Science to promote public psychological health. In her first email, she talked about the loopholes the reporter left in an article published in a leading weekly news magazine in China. The article, based on an interview with her, narrated her experiences during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
In addition to getting two people's names wrong, the reporter misinterpreted her impressions of the United States, Xu said. She made the accusations not only in her email to me and other friends, but also in her blog.
The reporter wrote that Xu "went to further her studies in the United States, the country that touts the Glory and the Dream. There, she experienced democracy which was different from collectivism"
The truth is, Xu said she became "very disappointed with the hypocritical 'democracy' in the US", and that she made her disappointment crystal clear upon her return to China.
Xu has the right to be furious and to question why a young reporter not only misquoted her, but put words in her mouth, too. Through her blog, she has notified the public about the errors in the article.
The second email, which she forwarded to me on Monday, was first sent out last Thursday by a renowned professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It contained a copy of a news analysis about this year's Nobel Prize for Economics, which was published in a leading Beijing-based business and economics newspaper.
The author quoted two Chinese academics, one of who was the Chinese University professor, in his analysis of how Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom's research inspired Chinese economists to find solutions to a plethora of problems China faces in development. The author claimed that the quotes came from recent interviews, but this professor said in his email that he'd never given an interview.
Sadly, these are not isolated cases. There is no single root cause for media inaccuracies. Instead, it's a confluence of factors.
First, China's dramatic economic growth has transformed it so much that it is difficult for young reporters to understand events that took place before they were born. Although traditional journalism teaches aspiring young reporters to never take things for granted or make assumptions, some still do, thus making up their own interpretations without checking the facts.
Second, as competition among the traditional and the new media becomes fiercer, some in the traditional media are giving up their long-held practice of checking the facts.
As they cut budgets and rush to keep up with the Internet, many media organizations cannot afford the manpower or the time to check facts. Some media organizations just keep their reporters in the office by their phones and computers where they can use the Internet. They don't encourage them to go to obtain the information first-hand on a story.
Above all, on the Internet, any private citizen can now report or blog about "news". When a young man went online and slandered his former girl friend, saying she was suffering from AIDS and sleeping with numerous men, quite a few Internet portals reported this as news in order to draw more hits or wider citation. Here accuracy and truthfulness are simply trampled.
There is no simple solution for eliminating media inaccuracies and false reports. Even when we tighten ethical reviews among journalists in certified media outlets, there will still be millions of bloggers and self-appointed journalists on the Internet.
The best society can do is to call on the people in the know to help correct the inaccuracies while raising public awareness of the journalistic code of conduct that makes it illegal to libel, slander or spread falsehood.