International ties

Yellow journalism still alive and kicking

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-06-15 09:56
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You never know when you'll touch a nerve when you write a column. Last week I wrote two articles that are interrelated and got some people up in arms. The first op-ed was in the Global Times on June 7.

The second opinion I wrote for China Daily Website.

The substance of my Global Times opinion was that Chinese families should think twice before plunking down $27,000 to send their children to average American high schools, specifically Stearns High in Maine, which has been actively recruiting students from China.

The China Daily Website opinion suggested that we could all benefit from examining our Internet manners and should stick to debating ideas.

Let me try and connect the dots from the two opinions.

We are all children of the Internet and there simply are no adult models around to tell us how to act. The Internet is in its infancy and like babies we are crawling, walking, and falling together. Unfortunately, that means that we often behave like babies when we go online.

We expect puerile comments from blog writers and online respondents. That is, I suppose, their prerogative. But we hope for, and should expect more from, newspapers and magazines.

Yellow journalism is writing that gives readers poorly-researched news and uses eye-catching headlines and inflammatory language to sell more product or attract more readership. It became de rigueur in New York City during the heyday of American journalism around 1900 when the giant newspaper families such as the Hearsts and Pulitzers competed against one another for the public's attention. Today the term is used pejoratively to describe journalism that reports news in an unprofessional or unethical way. Here are three recent headline examples:

Chinese newspaper slams Millinocket; student recruiting effort sparks cold war of words

Millinocket officials return fire after Chinese paper's attack

China Launches Propaganda War Against Small Maine Town, Loses

Those headlines sprung from my Global Times opinion.

What was characteristic of the headlines, which appeared in the Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine), Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine), and the Atlantic Magazine respectively, was that the first two headlines imputed an individual's signed opinion (mine) with the editorial position of the newspaper, which it clearly did not represent.

The third headline was particularly odious coming from a nationally-respected US magazine. Someone online suggested that it sounded like an introduction to an episode of South Park. The Atlantic headline melded my opinion with a supposed broadside by the Chinese government against a small American town. Now that's yellow journalism.

Rather than address the substance of my complaints which was that low-performing financially-strapped schools like Stearns might be less than ideal investments for Chinese families, the various American news sources and critics generally launched ad hominem responses and outright falsehoods.

The Atlantic Magazine referred to the Global Times as "a regime tool to flatter the Communist Party." The Maine Public Broadcasting Network alleged that I did not respond to "a request for an interview by airtime," even though the station never contacted me.

Regrettably, there wasn't much in any of the articles to suggest why a middle class Chinese student should go to Stearns.

Trial lawyers have a maxim that when the law of a case is on your side, argue the law. When the facts favor you, argue the facts. When neither the law nor the facts support your position, just make something up and holler. Journalists shouldn't act like trial lawyers.

Here are a few precepts I Iearned when I studied journalism in the US that should be attached to press keyboards.

Signed opinions on a Viewpoint, Forum, Commentary Page, etc. are the opinions of the author, not necessarily the newspaper. I've written many opinions that have been published in both the US and China with which I'm sure my editors didn't agree. They are my opinions, just as the one about Millinocket being a questionable investment was mine. It is the news media's job to provide a forum for presenting responsible outside opinions, regardless of whether the editors agree with the author's opinion.

Newspaper headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles they accompany. That is word-for-word language from the American-based Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Finally, even if I didn't connect the dots, sometime during the next month, I will be going to Millinocket and talking to people there about the type of program they have planned for the incoming Chinese students. If I have been unfair to Millinocket then I will honor journalism's highest dictate: Tell the truth. Stay tuned.

The author wrote the “expert's take” on the media this month for the 30th Anniversary Edition of China Daily. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily Website.