“What was your source, a Chinese news site, or an international one?” my Chinese teacher asked after each of the six students in my class had given our daily news presentations. Our answers were evenly split. Three of us cited international publications (such as the New York Times or CNN) as our source for news on Chinese affairs, while the rest of us had used Chinese news agencies for information. Those of us who had chosen news stories from Chinese sources spoke either about topics favorable to the Chinese government (such as Premier Le Keqiang’s leadership in the United Nations General Assembly, and his diplomatic efforts in Canada and Cuba), or coverage on natural disaster (typhoons, floods, droughts etc.). Irregardless of topic, however, our presentations were tainted with conspicuous pro-government sentiment.
“What do you notice about the news stories you presented, based on the source of your information?” my teacher challenged us. My classmate, who had presented a story on the recent incarceration of provocative, anti-government artist Ai Weiwei’s lawyer on dubious fraud charges, stated what seemed to be an obvious statement: “Chinese news hides the truth.” We murmured in agreement. Chinese news and media organizations had failed to report on the nitty gritty subjects of social and political affairs. It seemed as though Chinese journalists succumbed to the biddings of their government, and turned a blind eye to controversy, especially with regard to issues of human rights, censorship, and political freedom. As a group of international students hailing from diverse regions — Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, and all over the United States — where press freedom reigns, we were dumbfounded over the propagandist nature of Chinese news.
After hearing this statement my teacher engaged the class in a discussion regarding the nature of bias and perspective in news. “Isn’t some form of political, social, cultural, or national bias present in all news? Is it possible for a news source to ever not be ‘biased’? ” she implored us. “Truth is relative. What is true to you, as a member of this school community, or as a member of a larger American society, may not be true to a Chinese journalist. We should not discount a piece of information solely due to its place of origin. Instead, we should read and form our own opinions on a variety of sources from different countries and perspectives, and only then can we be truly informed members of society.”
Was my teacher right? Perhaps. While biases may be inherent to our opinions and judgements, and are certainly an essential component of news presentation, does that mean we should still place equal weight on all news sources? I don’t believe so. All news isn’t created equal. But how do we decide when biases evolve into prejudices? How do we know when a journalist has “gone too far”? These are questions that I will continue to consider, and through more discussions akin to those in my Chinese class, begin to answer.
Image Credit: The Huffington Post