Domestic Affairs

Don't blacklist, demand good reporting

By Kim Bowden (
Updated: 2011-06-29 10:17
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Exploding watermelons, phony eggs, rice made from plastic bags...Navigating supermarket aisles is risky business if you believe everything you read.

China's Health Ministry has appointed itself supermarket security guard, announcing earlier this month its plan to blacklist journalists who mislead the public with phony-food stories.

Over the passed three weeks the China Daily has encouraged online debate on the issue and as a young Western journalist I have been reading the comments with interest.

A whopping 74 percent of respondents said they thought it was unreasonable for the Ministry to limit the freedom of the press to report on food-safety scandals. And thank goodness for that.

With journalists often ranking alongside lawyers, politicians and used-car salesmen in the pits of public esteem, it was humbling to know these respondents, at least, thought we had a vital public service role to play.

Amidst a seemingly never-ending series of stomach-turning and downright bizarre food-safety claims, consumers are desperate for information.

"Basically, people now feel nothing is safe to eat," Sang Liwei, who directs the Beijing office of the Global Food Safety Forum, a private agency, told a New York Times reporter. "They don't know what choices to make. They are really feeling very helpless."

Perhaps I am idealistic, journalism-school teachings are still fresh in my mind having graduated just last year, but I believe good journalism empowers people to make informed choices and holds the powers that be to account.

It worries me that China's Health Ministry would try to curb this watch-dog role of the press in any way.

But with this role comes responsibilities.

As another China Daily contributor put it last week: "Newspapers and reporters are supposed to have a different set of values when it comes to the truth, the idea being that we supply critical thinking and verify the facts so readers can believe what is being said."

In an increasingly commercial news culture, where better to be first and wrong rather than last and right is a common newsroom mantra and too many journalists fail to stray far from the press release turnaround treadmill, good investigative reporting often falls by the wayside.

Science and consumer affairs reporting are especially difficult in this climate, and years of research and complex findings are often condensed into just a few simple paragraphs and a catchy headline.

Misinformation can cause public panic and ruin an industry's credibility, and it is right for the Ministry, along with food producers and consumers, to demand nothing less than the highest of journalistic standards from reporters.

It wouldn't be the first time the media has got it horribly wrong.

Skewed reporting of a suggested link between autism and the MMR vaccine, a shot against measles, mumps and rubella, led to wide-spread public panic regarding the safety of the vaccine in many Western countries.

Immunization rates plummeted and an illness "that had pretty much been consigned to the dustbin of diseases", as a UK Guardian columnist put it, has returned once more.

In 1998 Dr Andrew Wakefield published a study suggesting a link between the MMR jab and autism and "numerous newspapers and magazines championed him as a brave voice of reason and chastised the government for trying to silence his findings". The columnist goes on to say that "even as Dr Wakefield's claims were roundly discredited by experts, journalists continued to back him".

Sensationalist news sells papers, it generates page views, but it is certainly not the job of the media to scare readers senseless, especially without the fact checking to warrant it.

When it comes to reporting food safety scandals, reporters and their media outlets must strive for more than a "he said, she said" type of story. They must independently verify facts and not give unwarranted voice to crackpot science or conspiracy theories.

When such journalistic standards are adhered to, any attempts by the Health Ministry to blacklist journalists would, in my opinion, be heavy handed and an alarming step on a slippery slope of thwarting press freedom.

Kim Bowden hails from Auckland, New Zealand, where she recently completed AUT University’s Postgraduate Journalism Diploma, top of her class.