Chinese news professionals reflect on passive reporting of MH370 flight

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-3-31 19:48:01

Journalists attend a press conference held by the Department of Civil Aviation Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur on March 9. Photo: IC

Wang Wei (pseudonym), a financial journalist from, was furious.

"Netizens left messages on my microblog, criticizing me for doing an 'awful' job. They said they wanted to know the whereabouts of the missing airplane, rather than listening to crap,'" said Wang, who was dispatched to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to report on the missing flight MH370.

Many criticisms were targeted at Chinese media for lacking the initiative to dig out in-depth information and simply translating first-hand reports by their more aggressive Western counterparts.

On March 8, flight MH370, which had been bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, was reported missing. The bizarre incident which has resulted in the loss of 239 people including 154 Chinese, has dominated headlines worldwide. Of course, the key question has been: "Where is the missing plane?"

Journalists from around the world have flocked to Malaysia to cover the latest developments in the search and to shed light on any mismanagement by the authorities, but that key question remains beyond their ability to answer - which has infuriated an already impatient public.

The authorities have said that according to their best information, the plane has been lost in the Southern Indian Ocean, one of the world's deepest, most remote bodies of water. But for the past few days, Chinese Net users and online celebrities have vented their anger over the Chinese media's unsatisfactory performance.

"When foreign media were questioning whether the Malaysian government had been covering up the truth, Chinese media were complaining about the delay to the press conference. When foreign media were calculating the flight routes of the missing airplane, Chinese media were repeatedly calling on people to light candles and pray for the return of the passengers," Yang Jinlin, a former anchorman of Phoenix TV, wrote on his Sina Weibo.

Bureaucratic entanglements 

The very first day after the airplane was reported missing, official media were already being criticized.

Malaysian Airlines announced at 7:30 am on March 8 that its flight MH 370 had lost contact with ground control tower from around 1:45 am. Soon, news was widely spread via social media.

The loss of the plane was not announced by CCTV until 8:45 am. The coverage in the series started after 10 am.

Zhuang Yongzhi, a producer and program planner at CCTV, was disappointed by the slow response.

"We have to go through a series of steps in the reporting and application system when major incidents occur. We have to wait for the approval of the chief editor, channel director and sometimes even the president of the station before we start to broadcast news," Zhuang said.

In contrast, some foreign media such as CBS, Zhuang said, have a sound and mature emergency response plans that can start the coverage of breaking news minutes after incidents take place.

"We still lack this," Zhuang said.

For the first two days, media reports were filled with interviews with passengers' relatives. Media outlets used public sympathy toward the relatives of the airplane passengers to gain public attention.

"Constant coverage of the relatives exhausted people's patience. Instead of hearing sentimental reports, Chinese audiences needed more. They wanted the truth," Wang Qinglei, the production manager of CCTV program 24 Hours, told the Global Times.

"For the first two days, almost all the Chinese media cited foreign reports as news resources. It seemed that when referring to international affairs, Chinese media had to rely on foreign media," said Luo Changping, an award-winning journalist.

"Some official media outlets with extensive resources dispatched so many foreign correspondents, but what did they do? Are they just expensive translators?" Luo asked.

A Chinese journalist asks a question during the same press conference. Photo: IC

Unfamiliar territory

Compared with official media, who have a strict reporting process, commercial media, especially online media, moved much faster.

However, their performances were also rated as mediocre by observers due to a lack of experience, resources and language barriers.

On March 8, Wang, from, along with five colleagues, was dispatched to Malaysia. It was the first time Wang had gathered reports in a foreign country, so he was thrilled but also anxious.

"My English is poor, and I lack experience doing reports in other countries," Wang said. Even though he had been a journalist for over six years, he stumbled when it came to English.

The language barrier proved to be a hurdle for most Chinese journalists. Many Chinese journalists had to rely on a translator when posing questions.

As Wang headed to Kuala Lumpur, over 80 other Chinese media outlets also dispatched their reporters to Malaysia, Wang said.

But quantity is not equal to quality. Most had no aviation knowledge and had to rely almost entirely on the Malaysian government, attending the 5 pm press conferences each day.

"We have no connection with the local government, and we don't even have acquaintances who can tell us whom we should talk to," Wang told the Global Times.

"On the first two days, the Malaysian government said they carried out rescue work in the Gulf of Thailand, so two journalists went there. On the fifth day, they told press the plane may have been hijacked and revealed the identity of the captain and the co-pilot, so we went to interview their relatives and friends, hoping to do a profile story about the crew members," Wang said.

Most of the frontline journalists said that like Wang, the press conference had become their sole source of updates.

Wang said that the Malaysian government officials and the investigation team members acted and behaved cautiously, and refused to comment when Chinese journalists approached and posed questions in private.

On one occasion, Wang followed two officials heatedly discussing the flight route and stood beside them in an elevator, hoping to gain more information. However, they shut their mouths when they noticed the stranger nearby.

Foreign competition

The Malaysian government has been under widespread criticism for its lack of transparency. The abrupt changes to the announcements regarding flight routes and the rescue sites also made it difficult for journalists to continue following the story.

But while Chinese media were busy dealing with language barriers, a series of important news reports carried out by foreign media propelled developments in the case and eventually forced the Malaysian government to release critical information.

On March 13, CNN reported an exclusive story stating that the airplane may have flown to the Bay of Bengal, after talking with officials from the International Maritime Satellite Organization. The Wall Street Journal dug deeper to get critical data from the engine maker Rolls-Royce. On March 14, Reuters reaffirmed with the army that the airplane had changed its altitude several times before it changed direction and flew towards the Indian Ocean near the Andaman Islands.

The disclosure of the new findings and key information added pressure on the Malaysian government and propelled them to hold a press conference on March 15 in response to the substantive reports.

The news conference was considered a victory for the Western media. Chinese Net users began to more harshly criticize the failure of the Chinese media.

"The breakthroughs were based on the analysis and circulation of some organizations inside the industry. Most of the Chinese media failed to ask those questions of corresponding agencies and organizations," Luo Changping told the Global Times.

"No one denies that the Western media's reports put huge pressure on Malaysia, which manifested the power of media. Compared with foreign media, Chinese media are used to being the megaphone of the government. They merely recycle official conferences and they are glad to do so," said one Weibo post that has been reposted over 10,000 times.


However, not everyone blames the airline and the Malaysian authorities for the controversy.

"As a journalist who was on the front line, I believe the Malaysian government has tried its best to tell the truth. Considering the complexity and the strict approval system they have to go through, it was understandable the authorities changed their comments as the investigation on the missing airplane moved forward," Xiao Xia, a journalist from the 21st Business Herald noted.

Xiao also pointed out that the Western media don't always report first-hand information either. "In fact, the Western media often cited local media and translated it into English," Xiao said.

The extensive criticism of Chinese media coverage prompted self-reflection among the media professionals, who claimed they have tried their best to pursue the truth.

To better understand the issue, a small-scale seminar that gathered dozens of media workers, including frontline journalists, senior media experts and professors, and foreign media workers, was held last Wednesday in Beijing.

Tang Yu, a journalist from Beijing Business Today, said she and her colleagues stayed in the Lido hotel where the relatives of passengers have been located for days and completed a serial of profile stories on the passengers.

She also asked what else she could do, considering that she had no other clues.

Tang's query was a common one among the journalists. Most of the attendees agreed that due to the media system, China lacks professional journalists who have long-time experience in one specific area. For instance, most Chinese journalists dispatched to Malaysia were born in the late 1980s. Some of them are newcomers.

"Without the accumulation of knowledge and experience one cannot become a good journalist," Luo Changping said.

Some objective elements also caused the failure of the Chinese media, experts said.

Compared with Chinese media, Western media have advantages when obtaining exclusive news in an English-dominated international environment, said Cao Haili, managing editor of the Chinese website of New York Times.

"No wonder news sources prefer to offer information and cooperate with Western media, as English is still the lingua franca in today's world," Cao Haili, said.

Employing locals, with their associated local contacts, also helped foreign media a great deal, Cao said.

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