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Quake broadcasts opened a window

Though China saw new freedoms in its TV coverage, officials' loosening of control may be fleeting.

May 23, 2008|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

CHENGDU, CHINA — From the moment the young man was discovered pinned under a mountain of concrete to the instant he died, TV reporter Zhang Qian fed live footage to viewers.

Zhang witnessed the immobile man, whose face was pressed to the ground, pledge to live on for his loved ones. She watched as he cheered for the rescuers and, about five hours later, as he took his last breath.

Such media access might not be unusual in a country with a free press, but in communist China, where the state has a strong hand in controlling what people see and read, this view of life and death during an epic national disaster is practically unheard of.

"Never before have we shown a person go from living to death on live Chinese television," said Zhang Kaipei, deputy director of Sichuan Television's Channel 4, a news and information station in Chengdu. "It's a moving story. Our local audience also happens to be victims in this disaster. They have a right to know firsthand what is happening around them."

Media analysts say China has relaxed its grip on certain aspects of the press in recent years. Commercially driven arms of state media tend to operate with some freedom and are accustomed to producing human interest stories that appeal to viewers.

Still, media outlets from outside Sichuan province, foreign or Chinese, faced difficulties in reaching the mountainous epicenter of last week's magnitude 7.9 quake. At first the government ordered Chinese news organizations not to send reporters to the scene and to instead use material from state-owned CCTV or from the official New China News Agency. After many news organizations ignored the order, the government instructed journalists to stress unity, stability and positive stories.

Government officials this week have begun reining in the media after a period of relative freedom in reporting. For example, some hard-hit areas were declared off-limits to journalists.

Zhang Kaipei, who is not related to the reporter, said Channel 4 had received no reprimands or new instructions from government officials. He said his main concern was staying ahead of his local and national competition.

At the 3-year-old station, about 150 reporters and camera operators, most without journalism experience when they were hired, began sending dispatches immediately after the quake hit. Some reported from the sides of cliffs to which they had hiked with rescuers after the roads washed out. Other dispatches came from inside helicopters or the tops of rubble.

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Birth by flashlight

The crews visited hospitals and in one case interviewed a mother who had been undergoing a cesarean section on the 11th floor of a facility when the temblor struck. The doctors stayed, working by flashlight to safely deliver a healthy girl.

Crews told of a woman in her 60s who crawled out of the rubble and collapsed in a deserted area. She survived for eight days, apparently accompanied by two stray dogs who stayed by her side, licking her face until help came. They interviewed an 11-year-old girl who said she jumped from the sixth floor of her school as it collapsed, avoiding serious injury by landing on soft ground.

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Overcome on camera

Some of the reports were so graphic that reporters became emotional on air.

One anchorwoman, a young mother, had to be replaced by a colleague during a live broadcast while she composed herself.

"I have never experienced anything like this before. Some of the places we went to, every step we took, we were possibly stepping on a dead body," said Zhang Qian, 24. She and an anchor cried together on the air while talking about what she had seen.

Riveted by what they saw on television and in newspapers, people nationwide have been turning their personal sadness into a mass volunteerism rarely seen in Chinese society.

Zhou Jing, 34, a Chengdu resident and mother of a 6-year-old boy, said her family had been unable to turn off the news.

"When I see those abandoned backpacks of children who died in the schools, all I can think about is the fragility of life," said Zhou, who went to an address she saw on TV to donate children's clothing for quake orphans. "I brought my son here so he can see what it's like when the country is in crisis and people come together in unity."

Analysts say it's unclear whether the changes in press freedom will last.

Even the most aggressive Chinese media outlets have focused on stories of human suffering and upbeat tales of soldiers saving lives, rather than challenging officials about issues such as preparedness or school safety.

"If you compare the handling of this disaster to past handling of disasters, this is remarkable," said David Bandurski, a researcher with the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. "But that does not necessarily signal a fundamental shift in the control of the media. Hopefully the leadership will make note of the fact that the benefits of an open media far outweigh the negatives. What they seem to lose in control they gain in legitimacy and trust."

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