It was the biggest news in the newsroom all of last week and even up until now. Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin was up until then, a name unfamiliar to many non-Chinese in the newsroom. I intern at an international news organization and I remember distinctly while working the control room on July 4th during the 4 pm show, rumors that the former president had died had already spread like wildfire. Although I had expected to prepare myself to go into ‘Breaking News’ mode, the call was never made. Even when that particular 4 o’clock show ended and the next show began, I was not given the signal. Finally at 6 pm when I was done with the shows I returned to my desk where I monitored local Hong Kong news stations ATV and TVB.
Being a journalist and a student studying journalism, we are constantly confronted with the question of whether it is more important to get the story right or to get the story first-a dilemma that so often arises due to the speed of the web and the increasing competition from other organizations.
Still, actually being thrown into the situation was quite a learning experience for me. Personally, when I first saw the ‘Breaking News’ ticker on ATV, I automatically thought to myself, why is nobody else running with this story? I mean they are breaking the story of the year! And given the close ties ATV is known for having with the Chinese Government, it baffled me why no one else had run with it.
But that’s when the judgment call came in. Eventually the call was made to wait until we could get official confirmation from sources instead of running with the story and reporting that ATV had said it. Looking back on it, I was really impressed that the company I intern for decided to wait out the storm to make sure the facts were right. According to several Chinese media outlets, Jiang Zemin is not dead and is at home resting. Either way, the day was definitely a learning experience.
It also taught me a lot about public relations as well. During the entire time, I thought about what my PR classmates would have said. In the words of my lovely classmate Shuzhe when we were stuck on a Chinese plane for 6 hours on a runway “there was not proper crisis management”.
Media outlets did not mention the millions of Chinese netizens that had prompted the trending topic on Sina Weibo of Jiang’s death. There was also only an English wire announcement on popular Chinese newspaper Xinhua’s site that refuted his death as if foreigners have more of a right over Chinese to know what has happened in China.
It is quite clear though that whether Jiang is dead or in fact alive, that this public relations mess could have been handled much better if China had reacted quicker instead of spending hours censoring homophyns of the leaders name, his information, and subsequently only releasing a refute hours later and only in a foreign language.