Tracking China's Earthquake on TV and the Internet

Source Organization: Pew Research Center

Author: Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow


05/16/2008 - Beijing - On Monday, May 12, at 2:28 pm, I was working at my desk on the 21st floor of the apartment building where we live in Beijing. Like many other people at that moment, I suddenly felt dizzy and lightheaded. I gripped the edge of my desk, wondering if I might faint. Then the curtain pulls began to sway, and the walls began to creak. After years of living through earthquakes in Japan, I recognized the signs. After a minute or so it was over.

Within about 15 minutes, my search for "earthquake China" on Google was producing results. Reuters showed up first, reporting a website announcement from the U.S. Geological Survey that there had been an earthquake in Sichuan Province, about 1000 miles southwest of Beijing. One of China's most popular English blogs, Danwei.org, weighed in at 2:47 pm, with a short report and including a link to Twitter, which was beginning to come alive with comments and messages from all over China. There was nothing on the TV, and there wouldn't be for about four more hours.
I have been tracking the earthquake story on TV and on the internet for more than four days now, and here are some of the things I saw:

Day One: Chinese TV has little more than a few fact-based reports about the earthquake. Mostly, it's business as usual. The internet is exploding with news and information and also with reporting and personal comments in the hyperactive Chinese blogosphere, Twitter, and all the instant messaging services in China.

Day Two: The TV has a few reporters on the streets doing spot reporting and interviews from as far into the earthquake areas as they can reach, which is not very far. There is some footage of organized response teams, the arrival of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Sichuan, and scenes of devastation. The internet is getting organized, with collections of amateur videos, photography, and trading information on whereabouts of people in the earthquake area who can be useful to each other.

Day Three: TV pieces become more heavily produced, and they begin to include solemn background music, as well as announcements posted in black and white coloring. Talk shows emerge with experts and officials. There are personal interviews with survivors, and newscasters occasionally struggle to keep composure. The internet gets out information on donations as well as quacky theories on whether animal behavior can predict earthquakes. Everyone agrees that the government is moving forward with "unprecedented transparency" in media coverage.

Day Four: TV pieces take on distinct, strong tones of nationalistic pride. Flanks of soldiers in army fatigues run in formation through rubbled streets, clamber over landslides, portage boats, jump out of helicopters. Medical staff in white uniforms; rescue squadrons in florescent orange; parades of ambulances. Legions more of soldiers carry the injured piggy-back style or swaddle babies in their arms. There is footage of cranes, steam shovels, and people digging by hand through impossible mountains of debris. Also, there is seemingly no censorship on Chinese TV; the faces in all these productions tell everything. The soldiers are young; the grief is raw; the eyes are desperate. Chinese TV viewers are used to melodrama, but it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the scale and the personal toll. In one scene, a camera peers into a small crevice left between two collapsed floors of a building. You see the eyes and face of a young teen-age girl trapped there. You see she is waving her hand at the rescuers, and she calls out "I'm happy. I'm happy. Tell my mother not to worry!" Online, the internet reports dig deeper into seismology; questions of building standards; comparative (non)reporting of past earthquakes; special sites for personal messages; pleas for news of missing people; more information about donations and charities.
This story will continue for a long, long time.

China's Earthquake on TV and on the Internet: Part II  (May 19, 2008)

I have continued to watch Chinese TV and monitor the internet since the earthquake happened, one week ago. Chinese TV has regained its footing and is back to being the voice of the government. The internet has become a more wild-west version of itself, with a virtual explosion of content that runs the gamut from informative to creative, cynical, touching, responsible, irresponsible, angry, maudlin...

Day 5: On Chinese TV, footage of planeloads of aid pouring in from around China and the world began to replace footage of new rescues, which were becoming scarce. We heard, however, that 63 more people had been found alive, and workers and officials alike declared they would continue searching "as long as there was even one percent of hope." The TV strayed from message, touching the hot button issue of Tibet, with video of monks praying for earthquake victims. They also showed aid and relief workers arriving from Taiwan, and airing a long, rather puzzling and awkward interview about the motives and methods behind the Taiwanese rescue efforts.

Meanwhile, the voices on the internet took on many tones: tearful, desperate, cynical, doubting, original, catty, and one quite rare in China: religious. John Kennedy, who translates and reports on Chinese blogs for Globalvoicesonline.org, a new media project which translates and curates blogs from around the world, wrote: "'Pray for the disaster victims, god bless China' has been the main motif on many main Chinese blogging websites." I also saw a report about a letter that a schoolgirl wrote in gratitude to "Grandfather Wen (Jiabao)" and pushback comments suggesting the letter was obviously written by an adult. There was argument about whether or not a young mother, who bore the brunt of a collapsed building, sacrificing herself to huddle protectively over her rescued infant had, or had not, typed a message onto the cell phone found alongside her, which said something like, "Dear baby, if you survive, please remember that I love you forever…" Lists after list of places to make contributions appeared.

Day 6: Three kinds of TV programming took over: a mishmash of live reporting from the disaster areas of the now wholly exhausted, depleted villagers, who were either waiting, grieving, or starting to set up camp in tents. As well, there were broadcasts of made-for-TV events from Beijing, with somberly-dressed, highly-cued studio audiences who were singing and donating money. And there were retrospective collages of the previous days' footage. One showed an entire village buried like Pompeii was, with just one broken wooden-framed roof showing above the fields of mud.

Again, the internet was revealing its quirky side: A firefighter scheduled to be married in Shenyang, northeast of Beijing, found himself in Sichuan instead. He and his bride decided to hold the ceremony anyway – over the internet. The wedding happened via video link-up. The groom reportedly said, "I am fine. I will do my best, I promise. I love you." They were officially married before the internet connection went down after 18 minutes. On a less joyous side, the government issued an order to suspend online game-playing and entertainment during the upcoming three days of mourning.

Day 7: The Chinese TV programming was now fully recovered from the shock of the earthquake, and it was again functioning in lockstep. Early in the morning, all the state-run CCTV channels were broadcasting the same prepared programs simultaneously. Even in the afternoon, most of them continued in synchrony. We saw flags raised, then lowered to half staff; heard announcements for the 3 minutes of nationwide silence planned for exactly one week after the earthquake occurred, at 2:28 p.m. We heard of a rescue of two elderly women, and as if there hadn't been enough horror, we learned that new landslides had buried hundreds of relief workers.

On the internet, a major blog service and new media provider Neatease.com, which had been collecting online donations, said it was severing ties with the China Red Cross for their failing to specify how much money had been collected. The China Daily reported that public security authorities were investigating 40 cases of people "spreading rumors" online about the earthquake. Two people were detained.

At 2:28 pm, I went outside our apartment building, alongside a big street and one of the major intersections of Beijing. Hundreds and hundreds of people left their offices, restaurants, and apartments to stand together to show respect with three minutes of silence. Cars stopped, and people got out to stand beside them or to look out over the bridges they were crossing. Jackhammers cased pounding; cranes stopped moving. People were checking mobile phones for the time. Then, on cue, horns from every single car began to sound. It was not honking, but one long, continuous wail. This apparently happened all across China. Then after three minutes, cars started up again, and jackhammers and bus horns, too. Young women wiped their eyes with the backs of their hands. I thought that for a few moments, the country had achieved its goal to be a "harmonious society," just as the Party has been trying to build—but at what a terrible cost.

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