Lawsuits, the Answer to Anti-China Media Bias?

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Since it’s Friday afternoon, a little levity (even the unintended variety) is in order. I’m still laughing over a Global Times article I read this morning, an interview with a Chinese law professor about the dread plague of factually incorrect media reports about China coming from abroad. While I readily admit that such bias exists (I write about it often enough), this article is so way over the top that it’s hilarious.

Let’s start off with the “Editor’s Note,” which sets the table perfectly for the rest of the piece:

China has an ambivalent attitude to the foreign media. They introduce the country, in both its good and bad sides, to the world. But Chinese netizens, media, and government departments often accuse them of biased. Is there anything China can do about it? Should Chinese firms or government departments try to use legal means to counter “biased” reports? Global Times (GT) reporter Gao Lei interviewed Wang Sixin (Wang), a law professor at the Communication University of China, on these issues.

That first sentence is precious. Yes, China’s attitude towards foreign media is ambivalent, wouldn’t you agree? And yes, they are accused of bias frequently. What’s amusing here at the very outset, of course, is that instead of launching into a discussion about whether such accusations are justified, the GT journo immediately leaps to “legal means” to solve the (obvious?) problem.

Don’t worry, it gets better. Moving on (these are exerpts):

GT: Foreign journalists have been seen as a window for the outside world to learn about China. They have produced many quality reports that explained the complexity of China. But there were also some inaccurate reports or even deliberately misleading information. Why does this happen?

Wang: I think this issue isn’t solely one of foreign journalists. China’s domestic media also produces inaccurate reports under various circumstances. It is nearly impossible for the media to be 100 percent accurate and objective.

Generally speaking, reports that have gone too far from the actual facts or contain fake information would be deemed as inaccurate. But the reasons behind this are complicated.

Foreign journalists may get their information wrong if they fail to attend a news event or cannot acquire firsthand news materials from there. This is mostly a matter of negligence and is not deliberate in nature.

On the other hand, foreign journalists may sometimes interpret a news event differently than the Chinese due to cultural differences or personal preferences. This may explain why the Chinese would consider the foreign press as biased.

However, deliberate distortions do exist as well.

What’s most striking here is how reasonable this professor is being when faced with leading questions. He must be aware of what position the GT journo is likely to have, and yet he persists in his reasonableness. Bravo!

GT: Some of the inaccurate reports published in the foreign media have already damaged the reputation of governmental institutions, corporations or individuals in China. Is there a legal channel for them to seek compensation and defend their rights from those false accusations?

Wang: It is very hard and next to impossible for the institutions or individuals in China to do anything against inaccurate reports seen on foreign media because these articles are published outside China and the country has no legal authority over their overseas publishers.

At this point, I would have loved it if Professor Wang had asked the GT journo whether GT would also be willing to subject itself to foreign lawsuits in the spirit of reciprocity. That discussion would have been fun.

Wang: [I]nstead of blaming the foreign press, I think we should be more realistic about this phenomenon. Those reports and articles are at most just opinions open for discussion. If we are unhappy with them, we can raise the arguments and have fair and rational debates with the foreign press.

But most of all, we should focus on improving our domestic affairs and satisfying the needs of the public, because only by doing that can we really stand confident against those false accusations.

I think the GT guy’s head exploded at this point. Way too reasonable, logical, and fair. Want to see the next question the GT journo asked after Professor Wang essentially said “You know, this is kind of a stupid discussion”? Here you go:

GT: What legal risks do foreign journalists have if they write inaccurate reports regarding matters in their own countries? Will they have to bear the same risks if they wrote about a foreign country?

This guy has a serious hankering for suing journalists. I know it’s a tough industry, but where’s the camaraderie?

Here’s the final exchange, which is awesome. Note the Professor’s last effort to explain why the idea of suing foreign journalists is a really stupid idea:

GT: Then how can we reduce the chances of being unfairly targeted by foreign press?

Wang: I think we cannot escape this fate because inaccuracy happens every day in the news industry. What we can rely on is the press guilds or other form of media associations that can help improve reporters awareness of the journalism code, so that they will refrain themselves from taking the wrong path.

The law may be helpful but using the law to crack down on media errors will often leave others with the impression that freedom of speech is being suppressed. Therefore, in the developed world, cases against journalists are often handled with extra care.

If this reporter ever wanted to work overseas, I’m thinking that anything connected with Murdoch would be a good bet. Assuming that Murdoch isn’t thrown in jail, of course.

9 responses on “Lawsuits, the Answer to Anti-China Media Bias?

  1. D

    It’s mostly China’s own fault for “media inaccuracies”. China, Chinese companies, and Chinese institutions bring much of the “bias” and “misinformation” upon themselves because China has closed off itself from being covered by both foreign and local media. Information and access that can help “balance” many stories is forbidden, hidden, or lost to the average reporter. How can China ever expect to have an even-handed approach to itself when it does not allow full access to journalists on many stories?

    Only when China truly opens itself up and does not intimidate reporters, banish reporters, jail reporters, and harangue reporters can the country expect to have an even-handed approach. Until that happens, reporters will be only able to see a small piece of many stories, and therefore China must learn to live with a macabre profile of its own making.

    It has really only been in the last 8-10 years that the Chinese government has learned to wage Western-style media propaganda wars externally as well as it has always waged them domestically (kudos to the Western public relations and public affairs companies helping the PRC govt…). However, many of those wars could be easily assuaged if more openness and access was given to both domestic and foreign reporters.

    If a journalist wants to report on activities inside a room, but the door is closed, the journalist can only report on the slight murmurs emanating from inside the room. Murmurs can easily be misinterpreted.

  2. perspectivehere


    There is a more serious academic consideration on this subject (legal redress for negligent misrepresentation in media news reporting) at:

    First Amendment Bargains
    Ian Ayres (William K. Townsend Professor at the Yale Law School and a Professor at the Yale School of Management)
    (18 Yale J.L. & Human. 194 2006)

    Here’s a refreshing, thought-provoking excerpt:

    “Much more troubling is the unwillingness of news organization (or reporters) to compensate people that they injure through negligent misrepresentation. The news media is the only for-profit business that can recklessly injure someone without having to pay tort damages. The law immunizes the media from defamation damages if they recklessly misrepresent facts about a public figure – even if that public figure is truly injured by the misrepresentation.

    Some people might feel that regardless of the law they have a moral duty to compensate people who are injured by their negligence. [Judy] Miller, who is in many ways an admirable extremist on protecting her sources’ confidentiality, shows no interest at all in compensating the victims of her misrepresentations. But guess how many dollars the news media voluntarily has historically paid to people that they injured? I’d be willing to bet that the New York Times has never voluntarily compensated anyone whom they have negligently harmed.

    Why not?

    One response is that journalists don’t make mistakes. But every correction disproves this hypothesis. More often, journalists cling to a second defense, the notion that there is no harm done – once a timely retraction is printed.

    Now it is true that timely retractions often mitigate the injury of misrepresentations. But don’t kid yourself. If a newspaper recklessly prints that a public figure is a suspected child molester or that her restaurant has a rat infestation problem, the timely retraction does not make the person whole. People who didn’t hear about the retraction or question its accuracy are likely to stay clear.

    We lack good information on the amount of uncompensated harm wrought by newspapers in large part because newspapers refuse to report it. If getting out the news is so important, why don’t the media disseminate information about the amount of injury that has gone uncompensated? It is just as newsworthy to find out and report how much people have been injured by media misrepresentations and left uncompensated. And there is a conflict of interest in the newspapers’ choice not to pursue this kind of story.
    Imagine instead a world where each correction included a statement from both the victim and the newspaper about how much the misrepresentation injured the victim (even after a correction) and that the newspaper has chosen not to compensate the victim. Stepping back, imagine a world where at least some apologies came with a price tag (even if the price were never paid). At the end of the day, it is ridiculous to think that the dollar value of harm from negligent misrepresentation is zero.

    The third and final argument for why newspapers don’t pay is that the production of news is somehow special. One journalist (with whom I confidentially discussed the idea of compensation) had the chutzpah to tell me that journalistic ethics demands that journalists not pay for their mistakes. He told me that getting out the news is too important to be chilled by the prospect of legal damages. It is almost with a sense of pride that he pointed to the tradition of never paying money.

    A stronger version of the argument runs like this: A newspaper only captures a fraction of the social benefits that it creates; therefore we can’t expect it to pay its full costs. But the same is true of car manufacturers (or physicians) and we don’t give them a free ride. Indeed, if news is so important, why don’t we also immunize the newspaper delivery truck if it negligently injures someone while it is disseminating the news? The “newspaper is special” argument proves too much. Why not generally immunize them from negligent torts? It’s fine for the government to subsidize the public good of news. But there’s not a reason in the world that this should be done on the backs of individuals who are harmed.

    The non-compensation problem that currently grips the production of news cries out for more commodification. Imagine what would what would happen if potential news sources responded to interview requests with the following email:

    ‘I would be happy to be interviewed. But I am concerned about the ability of the print media to harm public and non-public figures by negligent misrepresentations of fact without compensating them for their injury. I therefore propose the following contract that I’ve offered in the past:

    Agreement to Compensate for Negligent Misrepresentation

    In this agreement: ______ shall be referred to as “the reporter”;
    ______ shall be referred to as “the publication”; and ______ shall be referred to as “the source.”

    In return for the participation of the source as an interviewee, the publication promises to compensate anyone who is damaged by a factual misrepresentation printed in an article that expressly quotes the source. Compensation for factual misrepresentations is to be measured by the dollar amount required to make the damaged person whole, but in no event shall be less than $100. Damages might be mitigated by timely retractions of the misrepresentation. Anyone explicitly named in the article is an express third-party beneficiary of this contract and thereby has a right to directly sue the publication if it breaches its promise to compensate. The publication and the source intend for this to be a legally binding agreement. The reporter in agreeing to this contract on behalf of the publication represents that the reporter has actual and apparent authority to enter into this contract on behalf of the publication.’

    To accept this contractual offer (and thereby create a legally binding contract between the publication and the source), please reply to this email with a subject line that states “On behalf of the publication, I accept the Agreement to Compensate for Negligent Misrepresentation.” ‘

    This simple contract would protect anyone who was named in an article quoting the source. Of course, if you’re the only source that offers this contract, the newspaper is going to worry that you will be an overly sensitive, high-maintenance, pain-in-the-neck, and will avoid dealing with you. I know. I’ve offered this contract and you should hear the shock and indignation in the voice of the reporters.

    The news media may have a constitutional right to print reckless misrepresentations without paying compensation, but you and I don’t have to cooperate with the enterprise. Imagine how sources might react if every interview began with the reporter’s disclaimer: “I can recklessly misrepresent facts about you and others without any legal duty to compensate you.” Would you eagerly participate?”

    1. Stan Post author

      Yes, that is a serious, and interesting topic. It wasn’t one though that was really at the heart of that GT article (that was all about bashing the foreign press in a hypocritical fashion).

      For what it’s worth, the courts can only deal with a few cases of public lying. The rest are the price you pay for having media organizations in the first place.

      As for your last point? Almost no one would cancel their interviews in the face of that disclaimer. Why? People will do almost anything these days to get their names/images out there these days, and a little risk like that will not deter your average media whore.

  3. ltlee

    Of course western media bias is obvious.

    Western presses are for profit organizations. These organizations exist primarily to maximize the returns of the shareholders. In order to sell paper and to maximize eyeballs, their reports and their analysis have to appeal to their targeted readers. News in the west can be good or bad. Bad news of course will upset their readers and make them unhappy.

    One thing these media organizations can always sell to cheer up their readers is “holier-than-thou”.That is, UK, USA, and etc could be bad, but they are still better countries, better governments than China. This kind of message will make the western readers feel better about themselves. “China is bad” articles and analysis hence serve to balance depressing articles and analysis on western countries. And of course, most readers in the west do not know China well enough to distinguish dishonest from honest reporting concerning China.

    These dishonest and biased report will continue as long as the presses are profit maximizing and westerners are in general ignorant about China.

    1. Stan Post author

      Uh, you may want to take another look at Western media. Your description is slightly off.

      “Western bias” could mean a lot of different things. And yes, these are for-profit companies that need to make their shareholders happy. But saying that Western readers become “unhappy” from bad news, and that this drives story choice is really way off target. It’s more like the opposite.

      The largest source of bias with Western media is actually to report on controversy and bad news. They thrive on that because it is exciting and readers like it.

      There is plenty of disinformation out there about China in the news, some of it coming from a “holier-than-thou” point of view, some from ignorance, and a whole lot from lazy reporting. But it has nothing to do with keeping readers happy. That’s the least concern of journalists out there!

      I also try to avoid the “conspiracy” idea that the journalists out there are getting together and deciding to portray China in a bad light. This is really way off the mark, and folks that believe this do not understand how the media works in the West. Bias and error in the news (with respect to China stories) has much more to do with individual points of view than that of their corporate masters. That’s why my criticism usually stops with the journalist and an individual story, and not with an entire news organization. Although you get common views, this can be chalked up to “group think” as opposed to a top-down system where journos are given talking points to disseminate. Well, except perhaps for Fox News!

      1. ltlee

        May be “bad news” is too vague in this context. Let me rephrase with “depressing news”, or news which makes western readers/audience feel bad about themselves. This kind of news will be balanced by holier-than-thou news which makes them feel good about themselves.

        In addition, conspiracy is not necessary. The presses are only as good as its readers. Since most westerners are not in the position to catch the journalists’ mistakes, biased reporting on China for whatever reason is the norm.

  4. Mick

    Perhaps Chinese officials see themselves emulating Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and family in using the legal system to sue the pants off anyone (and any publication) who has the temerity to be ‘biased’ against them.

    1. Stan Post author

      Would be a futile gesture. No reason to think they are thinking about doing so. That article wasn’t exactly written by a high-level government official, just some thoughtless reporter.