China’s state media is not world-famous for its objectivity, but those who follow it know that its sins are more often sins of omission than actual alteration of facts.
Reporters recount verbatim whatever information government officials pass down to them. They rarely deviate from the script and, as such, readers and watchers have more faith in Chinese media than most outsiders would believe.
“People from outside China are usually surprised at the level of trust in state media,” said Kristian Kender, research manager at independently-run China Media Monitor Intelligence.
However, the emergence of new sources of information such as foreign web sites, blogs and peer-to-peer networks have provided the public with a means of qualifying state media content which once went laregly undisputed.
As a result, people are not just questioning traditional news sources, they may be losing faith in just about every societal institution. According to a survey by PR firm Edelman of 140 business stakeholders in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, people have less trust across the board.
In addition to a 45% drop in trust in the media this year, trust in non-governmental organizations and government fell 32% and 27% respectively. Traditionally the most trusted of all institutions, the decline in faith in the government could well reflect the changing nature of China’s economy.
“Since we have been doing this study, five years now, government has always been the most trusted institution and that is because of the patriarchal nature of government. Government has been seen traditionally as providing cradle-to-grave employment. They have been seen traditionally as a bit more social facing in taking care of their own,” said Alan VanderMolen, Edelman’s Asia Pacific president.
While trust in the media as a whole declined, people’s faith in the internet has risen markedly. Trust in web-based information channels is up 150%, surpassing television to become the most reliable source of news in the country.
VanderMolen acknowledges the role the internet is playing in transforming China’s news environment but notes that declining trust in broadcast media is largely a result of the battle for advertising money.
“There is a lot of pressure on broadcasts to attract advertising dollars, to have a high entertainment quality as opposed to a high news and information quality, so broadcasters globally are really focused on having a news and entertainment blend in one product … and therefore it is decreasing the credibility of news programming,” he said.
“It’s got to bottom out sometime, and I think it is pretty close to the bottom now. Broadcast journalism I think is in big trouble and I think is in a vicious cycle now.”