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Where does Western media bias come from?

2009-07-16

During the Xinjiang riots, the Chinese government made an enlightened decision to permit foreign media to access the riot scenes to report first-hand what had happened.

The move brought about a strikingly positive effect, relieving the tension between the Chinese government and Western media. And the general coverage of the Xinjiang turmoil by Western media was more balanced and better than its one-sided accounts of the disturbances in Tibet last year.

However, media bias toward China remains a major problem that has caused indignation and confusion among Chinese once again. This issue needs to be put into perspective. Lack of mutual understanding plays a considerable role here: we do not know Western media very well, much as it does not know us.

Many mistakes and inaccurate reports were caused by hasty coverage of the riots. That can result in almost inevitable errors.

This was compounded by the fact that most foreign journalists knew little about Xinjiang.
These technical issues are entangled with some entrenched Western journalism values and approaches that may seem foreign to many Chinese audiences. Western journalism has a deep distrust of governments and tends to view them negatively.

This is in stark contrast to the Chinese media, which is largely in harmony with the government. In addition, Western journalism, rooted in a distinct sense of justice, favors minorities and the disadvantaged.

These are Western media's advantages, but also their blind spots, or biases. Together with technical drawbacks, they drove journalists to give a distorted portrayal of the unrest.

This is a pervasive problem in the Western media's coverage of international news, which is less objective than its national news. Western reporters are influenced by national biases
and hindered by their unfamiliarity with other societies.

The same is true of the Western media's opinion pieces and editorials about Xinjiang. Many contributors had no first-hand experience in China. Their comments, based on secondary material, are usually farther away from the truth.

The clash between Western media and Chinese people is a matter of cross-cultural interaction.
As China opens more to foreign media and lets its own people be exposed to more Western media, the situation will get better.

But did some Western media outlets report the Xinjiang riots with malice, as believed by many Chinese? This is very likely, since the conflicts between different countries, cultures, and social-political systems remain acute. We cannot exaggerate or intensify them nonetheless.

An encouraging counter-trend is that China is sharing more and more interests and values with the West. Opening to foreign media is a case in point, and we should keep moving in this right direction, as we gain more than we lose.

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