Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Errors will undermine media credibility

By Tang Xiguang (China Daily) Updated: 2015-12-14 08:14

Errors will undermine media credibility

Wang Xiaoying/China Daily

Many Chinese media outlets, old and new, are in the spotlight not for some praiseworthy cause, but for some unbelievable mistakes they have made in their reports. A Xinhua News Agency report on the meeting between President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama on Nov 30 on the sidelines of the just concluded Paris climate change conference ended up with a typo in its headline-using "Omaba" instead of Obama.

Although it was corrected half an hour later, the damage had already been done, as a slew of news websites, including the central government's, reposted the original report without noticing the typo. Worse, some local newspapers carried the same mistake the next day even though they had enough time to correct it.

It is universally acknowledged that a journalist can never be too careful when it comes to the names of people and places, especially in headlines. True, Xinhua was responsible for the typo in its wire copy, but it later corrected the mistake which unfortunately went unnoticed by a host of editors. Perhaps their unflinching trust in Xinhua reports is to blame for that.

Another slap in the face of Chinese media was the use by some main stream media outlets of some photographs that had been "photoshopped". The same mistake has been evident in the reports on the tricky online verification procedure to buy railway tickets.

The only website in the country allowed to sell train tickets,, has received many complaints against the verification code test designed to prevent auto logins or malicious software from purchasing tickets. The test usually comprises questions with multiple answers requiring customers to match some images with descriptions, but many people have struggled to choose the correct answers because of the low resolution of the tiny pictures and ambiguous questions.

Some frustrated Internet users edited the verification pictures to mock the system, creating fake questions, such as click on "all the pictures of handsome men", "all cartoon characters that are short" and "all pictures of the Bosphorus" to show how absurd the questions could be. Many media reports assumed these pictures to be real.

The recent inaccuracies in media reports have a lot to do with the lack of proper checking of facts and Internet-based epidemic of mindless mistakes. Yet the use of new media is not to blame, because similar mistakes were being committed before the Internet era. But by quickening the pace of communication, the Internet has allowed more people to notice the mistakes and comment on what is wrong with the reports.

Of course, media outlets that follow professional ethics and cross-check facts should be trusted and respected, but even the strictest fact-checking system can only reduce, not eliminate, mistakes in publications.

The flawed reports send a rather dangerous message-that some reporters and editors seem to have lost their sense of independence. In other words, they are not sure of or have forgotten the core values of mass media, the kind of service they are obliged to offer and, more importantly, the uniqueness of their service. The trend of homogenizing topics and contents is a result of the convenient Internet-oriented communication as well as the insufficient protection of news stories copyright.

In the case of "Omaba", the editors failed to fulfill their duty of checking facts. The pursuit of authenticity, a crucial element of journalism, should be based on rational judgment and firsthand information (as far as possible), rather than blindly copying from "authoritative" sources. Journalists' casual attitude toward facts will eventually deal a heavy blow to the media and prevent people from believing in the news they present.

In the age of "Internet Plus" and big data, news production has to be faster and more integrated than what it used to be, but that should not be at the cost of accuracy and authenticity.

The author is a professor at the School of Literature and Journalism, Shandong University in Shandong province.

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