Kudos to this guy on Sina Weibo for providing us “the big picture”, literally

Today provides us with a fascinating look behind the curtain of Chinese media, its hidebound hierarchical system, and its approach to fact-checking.  This short post concerns how an erroneous story published by a respected Chinese news source can blanket the Chinese online news media in a matter of minutes.

The image shows China’s four dominant web portals, QQ, Sohu, Net Ease and Sina, reporting on the same story.

According to today’s reports, the world’s most famous bicycle race, the Tour de France, is caught in a huge crisis, in which 1,832 riders have quit the race!

A normal media consumer, Chinese or otherwise, might ask, “Is this possible? A bicycle race with over 1,800 riders?”

A quick web search on any of the abovementioned portals reveals that the Tour de France 2012 has 22 teams competing against one another, each featuring 9 riders. 22*9=198. So, according to China’s online news behemoths, today in France 1,832 out of 198 riders have left the race.

This kind of erroneous news publishing is not uncommon in China’s fast ‘n’ furious media sector.  Today’s example unraveled as follows:

  • Xinhua, the state-owned news agency of China, is covering the Tour de France in France. A Xinhua journalist was writing about how 156 out of 198 riders made it to the end. However, maybe due to a jerk of fingers, he/she accidentally hit the “8” key one extra time. 198 became 1988. The journalist didn’t spot the tiny typo though. A click on the submit button, and the news is out on the infallible Xinhua wire.
  • The People’s Daily, the premier Chinese state-owned newspaper, picked up the story. Apparently the editor on duty has some “independent thinking”. He/she took the initiative and did the math: started with 1,988 riders, now only 156 left. That will make big news!
  • Sina’s editor saw the news on People’s Daily, and forwarded it with a casual copy & paste job.
  • And another casual copy & paste job by a Net Ease editor.
  • And another casual copy & paste job by a QQ editor.
  • And another casual copy & paste job by a Sohu editor.
  • Full house! Now the entire Chinese web believes le Tour de France is doomed, because 92.2% riders supposedly don’t think it’s worth their while. Could such an event have any future?

Curiously, throughout the entire process, not a single media professional involved questioned the figures, or to check other sources than People’s Daily or Xinhua.  Ironically the only one in the entire chain who exercised some independent thinking was the People’s Daily editor, and unfortunately he/she grasped the story in an entirely wrong way.

By now (July 19 2012, 11:32PM Beijing time), the crazy story has been circulated about 1,910 times across the Chinese web, including all sorts of leading portal sites, sports sites, bicycle hobbist sites, and state-owned news sites, and local newspapers. You can keep a track of the total count here.

[UPDATE at July 20 2012, 10:00PM Beijing time: we now see the number of Chinese media reports has increased to 2,470).

Key points, especially for those unfamiliar with China’s PR and news sector, are:

  • Have “key targets” when doing public relations in China. For example, know that Xinhua is one of the only two state-supported news wires. Get one story on Xinhua, and it will be picked up by thousands of media outlets before you can say “sweeet”.
  • Chinese web portals share news from print media and each other very fast, and they rarely apply filters to check if the story is true. Actually they rarely proofread. Quick copy & paste is the order of the average online newsroom operator. If a PR agency can manage to sell one story to one of these portals, or an important enough print media, it will be all over the web in a blink of the eye.
  • And the communications team with the Tour de France might want to clear the air a bit in China before anything stranger happens.  Feel free to call us for help, guys!