Legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa would have been rather impressed by the conflicting points of view. His pioneering 1950 film Rashomon depicted a murder from four different perspectives – leaving the audience in some doubt on what really took place. The Chinese news media can sometimes be just as skillful in presenting its readers with rival ‘truths’.
When we wrote last week about reports of cadmium-contaminated rice, it was a fairly straightforward food safety story. But soon it was also highlighting another important fact of life in China: the often-stark differences between ‘official’ media stories and those from private outlets.
After the original story broke, several other newspapers quickly followed up with similar reports and calls for action to be taken. But not everyone was quite as enthusiastic – particularly the state-run outlets.
“Experts say [the] study should be taken with grain of salt,” wrote China Daily, going on stress that agricultural experts had said the contamination was confined to particular regions and there was “no call for panic”.
State-run Xinhua took a similar line, even getting the author of the original study to weigh in. “In fact, urban people need not worry,” said Nanjing Agricultural University Professor Pan Genxing, “because the rice we eat is from various areas.” (Rural people living close to the polluted areas had much more reason to be concerned, Pan added).
In fact Xinhua and the China Daily have both run a series of stories over the past year highlighting how heavy metals (like cadmium) are affecting water supplies. But neither seems willing to go beyond the individual cases to present the contamination as more of a national issue.
So is it a major problem, or an issue limited to a few areas?
Century Weekly, the magazine that first broke the story, thinks it knows the answer. “It’s wrong to shrug off reports of heavy metals in China’s rice,” railed an editorial, “and right to address the core causes of tainted soil.” Instead, it painted the state media’s response as a form of damage control, pointing out how “right on cue” supportive experts have denied that any problem exists. “Meanwhile, both central government agencies and local governments in charge of areas with heavy metal pollution remained silent.”
The magazine puts its detractors into two categories. First: “[those who] argued there was no news in the finding… Contamination is so widespread, they said, that any remedial effort would be futile. So why bother?” And next, those that claimed exaggerated reporting, “that soil pollution is not as serious as some claim.”
Instead, it insisted that the media was obliged to sound the alarm on soil pollution, as the greatest threat to food safety. “The authorities should not… hide the truth or play down the problem for fear of public panic,” it warned.
Brave words, perhaps, for magazine still dependent on state approval to stay in business.
But Hu Shuli, the editor, has built a career on testing the limits of the censor’s patience, once telling an interviewer that “if it’s not absolutely forbidden, we do it.”
That editorial policy has made both Century Weekly and Caijing (the magazine she helmed previously) more successful than most. A string of scoops during Hu’s time at Caijing pulled in readers, including numerous reports on cases of corruption, coverage of the cover up of the SARS epidemic and the role of shoddy construction in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
Her editorial’s conclusion on the cadmium question is typically direct too: “In a sense, the official mindset is polluted, and the government system needs a clean-up as much as the farm soil laced with heavy metals needs to be decontaminated.”
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