It is the type of headline and news story ("Investment in media to present true picture of China," China Daily, Tuesday, Jan. 4) that strikes a sonorous chord as China increasingly becomes a front-line player on the world stage. According to the story, the "country will invest more in mainstream media organizations, especially those targeting overseas readers,...to better present a true picture of China to the world."
So here's a journalist's skeptical question: Can government-funded media outlets provide "true" pictures of China to the world and, perhaps just as importantly, can those media ever be perceived as doing just that?
About a half dozen years ago, I attended a Conference of international journalists in Berkeley, California. The most striking difference between American journalists and journalists from the other countries in attendance, primarily Europe, was the insistence by Americans that the press should strive to be objective. European journalists insisted that there was no such thing as objectivity and it was better for readers to know the biases of the source they were digesting so that they could consume information with a trained palate.
Unlike America, and in common with its European cousins, newspapers in England are pretty clearly partisan and make no bones about trying to hide that fact.
What's more, the British scoff at the notion that American newspapers are objective. In commenting about The New York Times to America's National Public Radio this week, Nick Boles, a member of the British Parliament said that The Times "twists itself into knots in an attempt to pretend" that it doesn't have a political point of view. Boles told NPR that, "in Britain, we feel that it's better to know where people are coming from and then to make up your own mind about what you think, because the truth is nobody can be completely impartial and objective."
The British and European attitude is that even judgments about what to publish represent a newspaper's ideology, so it's best to be clear with readers about that fact.
China's government can help the media present a "true" picture of China, but that truth will always be subjective. The best that can be hoped is that the media is transparent, that is, that it not pretend to be an objective impartial eye in the sky when it's not.
It is clear from pronouncements by the General Administration of Press and Publication that the Chinese government recognizes that media market share competition will be fierce and that the Chinese media will have to speak many truths to survive.
Although there will be a central director to Chinese media on the world stage, the ultimate arbiter of the value of that media will be the market. That will be the truth test. If international consumers want the Chinese media products because they come to trust them or believe the media represent a valuable alternative to other perspectives, that will be a good thing for the world and for China.
Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytical Journalism and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He lives in Beijing.