Special report: Reconstruction After Earthquake
By Qiu Lin
BEIJING, June 11 (Xinhua) -- When Chongqing-based magazine New Travel Weekly featured China's May 12 earthquake, it maintained its popular themes of glamour and sex.
Scantily-clad models draped themselves over the rubble, bloodied bandages as accessories to their bikinis, tight tee-shirts and mini-shorts, under the headline "Reborn from the Ruins".
The public reaction to this display of questionable taste and insensitivity was immediate.
The outcry at the newsstands quickly reached the city government, which suspended the magazine for "rectification", and the magazine president and chief editor lost their jobs for "unethical reporting".
It was an extreme case of poor journalistic judgment, but New Travel Weekly was among the few media whose insensitive reporting during their coverage of the devastating earthquake raised concern.
The Chinese media has reacted to the disaster with unprecedented openness and determination to bring the full extent of the catastrophe to the public.
"The earthquake has been a test of the reporters," says Yu Guoming, deputy dean of School of Journalism, Renmin University.
"The quake has proved that Chinese reporters are responsible, compassionate and they put their own safety aside to bring the reporting to their audience."
However, Yu points out: "Just as a test shows one's weaknesses, the earthquake has also revealed weak journalistic ethics, the inexperience and naivety of some reporters when faced with an event of such magnitude."
Jiang Min, a policewoman in Pengzhou city near the epicenter of Wenchuan, lost 10 relatives, including her two-year-old daughter and her parents, at first became a symbol of fortitude in the face of overwhelming tragedy -- then later became the face of media exploitation.
Despite her loss, Jiang Min continued relief work with other police and soldiers.
But in one television report, the reporter pressed her to answer the question, "Why are you still here?" A drawn-looking Jiang was pounded with further questions, such as, "Do you think of your own parents and daughter when you see the rescued old people and the kids?"
"I was furious when I saw the report on TV," says Ma Jianan, who works at an advertising company in Beijing. "The reporter was so insensitive to Jiang's feelings and had little professional ethics."
Later, Jiang was interviewed several more times on television.
Ma says he could not continue watching. "How can these TV stations torture her again and again by making her recount her story so many times?
"Journalists should not ignore the feelings of their subjects just to make a good report."
His thoughts are echoed in hundreds of posts on the Internet. "The media are inhumane. I strongly condemn those terrible reporters who have hurt Jiang Min again and again with their stupid questions!" one post reads.
Television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines sent hundreds of reporters to Sichuan within hours of the earthquake. They filed stories from the front lines of the rescue and relief effort in Sichuan. Television stations broadcast live news programs of rescue work and newspaper and magazines published special copies reporting on the earthquake.
Images of shattered homes, tales of strong-willed survivors and footage of People's Liberation Army soldiers working day and night to rescue survivors have kept the nation abreast of the relief work.
"I have not shed so many tears for a long time," said one post on the Internet in reply to a series of photos from the quake zone.
However, some reporters failed to meet the expectations of their audiences, who were concerned with the progress of relief work.
Xu Na, a reporter with the CCTV, was branded by Chinese Internet users "a deserter" and "unprofessional" after she filed a report from a hotel room in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, rather than live from the worst-hit city of Dujiangyan, 60 km from Chengdu, where a high school had collapsed, burying more than 300 students and teachers.
Coverage of rescue efforts and the survivors is generally acceptable as long as it does not impede the rescue process or safety, says Prof. Tom Brislin, who teaches media ethics at the University of Hawaii.
"Survivors shouldn't be required to have to recount their stories over and over simply because various media outlets are competitive or want exclusive interviews," Brislin says.
He points out that it is common for U.S. media to "pool" coverage of survivors so they can tell their story only once, and then get on with their lives.
Journalism schools in China do not offer complete courses on journalistic ethics, says Prof. Chen Lidan, of the Renmin University School of Journalism.
He says ethics is touched on in journalism theory courses. "It mainly talks about not fabricating news or not violating laws and regulations."
As for working journalists, they receive little training in how to report disasters.
Training programs at news organizations tend to focus more on technical skills such as how to write, or how to edit a story, but rarely touch on the issue of journalistic ethics.
Reporters who flew to the quake-hit zones within hours of the quake said they had no training regarding disaster reporting because there was no time.
Some reporters also exposed their ignorance when they covered the earthquake, in one case costing a man's life.
Wang Gang, deputy director of the Wolong District Police, was killed by the propeller of a plane carrying relief material after he pushed away a photographer who was standing too close to the aircraft.
When the Russian rescue team saved an earthquake survivor, one rescuer shouted angrily to the cameras because the strong lights could have damaged the survivor's eyes.
On the Internet, posts condemning reporters who insisted on talking to survivors after they were rescued after more than a hundred hours buried in the debris were repeated.
One reporter pushed himself into an operating theater to interview a doctor, who responded furiously that the reporter had contaminated his sanitized operation gown.
Chen says ethical problems have come with the development of China's media. In the past, most media outlets were funded by the government.
As China's economy grows, the government has reduced its funding and the media have become more profit-driven and commercialized. Though still owned by the government, media outlets operate more independently to finance themselves. They use stories that will most appeal to their audiences, sometimes with sensational headlines or images.
In 1991, the All-China Journalists Association issued the code of ethics that requires journalists to serve the people, adhere to the "right direction of public opinion", observe laws and regulations, ensure the accuracy and veracity of reports, resist corruption and promote teamwork.
"But this code has not been modified with the development of Chinese media," Chen says. "The earthquake has blown up some already existing problems."
He points out: "Cases of insensitive reporting attract attention and they will surely serve as an opportunity for the media to reflect on strengthening their ethics."
Yu Guoming suggests that news organizations begin to establish detailed disaster reporting plans. These plans should include guidelines for reporters when they arrive at the scene, how editors in the newsroom work effectively with reporters in the front and codes of ethics when covering disasters.