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Media reform must tackle supply-side imbalance, excessive commercialization

QI TAO | 2018-03-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Yang Weimin, deputy director of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economics, said bad loans and property bubbles must be handled in a short interview after a group discussion of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on March 4. (CFP)


 

As Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out, China’s overall productive forces have significantly improved over the years, but our development is unbalanced and inadequate, which has become the main constraint in meeting the people’s growing demand for a better life.


The evolution of the principal contradiction facing Chinese society means that the old days of quantitative expansion have gone and today we must devote great energy to addressing structural imbalances and inadequacies to better meet people’s ever-growing needs.
A look back at the four decades’ development of China’s media industry would be of significance for deepening reform in the sector in the future.

 

Rapid expansion period
In the 1980s, the media industry faced two pressing issues: lack of media resources and inadequate news products. According to the 1988 National Radio Survey, only 33.3 percent of people in China had regular access to newspapers. Statistics from the China Journalism Yearbook showed that China’s daily newspaper occupancy was 46.9 pieces per thousand people, and radio and television coverage accounted for about 70 percent of the population in 1986. Also, China’s newspapers were all run by the Party, ranging from four to eight pages. At that time, most TV stations had one or two channels and all sorts of content could only be scheduled for a limited period of time.


Given this, at the early stage of the reform and opening up, the Chinese media industry adopted an incremental reform model, which aimed at enlarging the scale of media and diversifying news products.


Therefore, there has been an explosive growth in media resources. Historical data provided by the China Journalism Yearbook starkly contrast the latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics. In 1978, there were 186 newspapers in China, with a combined circulation of 42.8 million, whereas there were 1,894 newspapers in 2016 with a combined circulation of 194.94 million. In 1980, there were 106 radio stations and 38 TV stations in China, whereas the number has skyrocketed to 2,741 public radio stations and 3,360 television channels in 2016, catering to a total of 228 million users. Meanwhile, data from the China Internet Network Information Center indicates that, as of June 2017, China has around 5 million websites, with 751 million internet users and 724 million mobile internet users. In short, China has grown into a major consumer of media.


Similarly, the communication capacity of news outlets has been enhanced and news products are rather diverse. The morning and evening papers provide readers with social and cultural news, and economic papers focus on economic, financial and industry news, while urban papers often write about livelihood and entertainment news. Radio and television stations have also promoted the specialization of channels, which makes art, economic, traffic and tourism channel a basic and regular setting in various broadcast. Portals, on the other hand, take advantage of the huge amount of online data while social media platforms motivate individual users to participate in content production. Driven by interest, many niche markets have also been filled by professional media.


As of today, China’s media industry is no longer troubled by the shortage of the overall supply capacity. However, “market saturation” and “information overload” became frequently discussed topics in the sector at the turn of the century. Though it was immediately pointed out that there is no saturation point for the market but only a saturation of ideas, and there is no excessive information but only effective dissemination. The phenomenon marks the end of incremental reform.

 

Supply, demand imbalance
Conventional wisdom holds that a saturated market will stir competition anxiety for producers, but consumers will benefit. However, in the face of market saturation and information overload, there is mounting dissatisfaction among media consumers while the structural imbalance in supply and demand has become a thornier problem.


With regard to content, there are two aspects of overcapacity and corresponding supply deficiencies. First of all, some mainstream media often adopt the tone of a government report to explain public policies, and they lack public service awareness. For example, some mainstream media tend to simplify news on policy advocacy to be officials’ speeches and conference news and sometimes even avoid the truth in the major emergencies. In most cases, all kinds of policies and procedures have been laid out on the official website of various governmental departments in a clear manner, but some media outlets somewhat fail to include practical information contained in the policy, thus failing to generate a good communicative effect.


In the market-oriented media, there is a surplus of entertainment content and insufficient coverage of social news. In the urban media, especially on online platforms, entertainment news, sports news and the recreational factors in the hot events are often the most active. The reason is simple as it is: this type of news is less risky and easier to attract traffic.


However, entertaining news, together with the official style of reporting, have deprived news media of the function of reflecting reality and the truth, and much news has become the “Rashomon.” It seems difficult for the public to learn the truth about incidents, such as whether child abuse occurred at a Beijing-based private kindergarten.


At the same time, there is an uneven distribution of media resources, characterized by the rapid development of market-oriented media and insufficient supply of public media. Driven by profit motive, media outlets often prioritize efficiency and show obvious commercialization tendencies. Excessive commercialization, coupled with a lack of professionalism, has inhibited the ability of some commercial media to produce content that meets basic news criteria.


More often than not, commercial media is aimed at audiences with higher economic status, greater public opinion impact and stronger consumer power. In this case, the relatively vulnerable groups lose access to the media, so public media services are urgently needed to strengthen social coordination and reduce social conflicts.

 

Supply-side structural reform
To address the structural imbalance in news and communication, the government has proposed the “two wheels” strategy of simultaneously promoting “nonprofit cultural undertakings and operative cultural industry.”


To start with, it is crucial for the press to further clarify the theoretical logic of news operation and dissemination. For the mainstream media, the central task is to clarify the purpose and objectives of the government policies. They are expected to offer an insight into the policies and help people understand where their interests are at stake. At present, some mainstream media use the methods of organizational communication to carry out mass communication, but the correct way should be the other way around, that is, to realize the goal of organizational communication via mass communication and obtain effective communication.


For the market-oriented media, it should also be made clear that news is never purely a commodity. Media outlets should bear in mind the interest of the people to help them exercise the right to know, express, supervise and participate. The media cannot treat audiences as just consumers and turn to click-through rates, readership and various rating system to measure the effect of communication. Rather, it is necessary to stress the public service and public opinion awareness in news reporting, so as to disseminate the news content that people want to know and should know as well as to carry out investigation and verification to present fair and balanced reporting.


Second, it is essential to reconstruct the media and adjust media resources distribution. To be specific, while encouraging market-oriented media, the construction of adequate public media is a must, so that nonprofit cultural undertaking and operative cultural industry could achieve balanced development. While promoting the all-media layout in the mainstream media, the construction of new media is key.


In the meantime, it is important to separate news production from marketing, making news reports—especially political and economic news—conform to the norm set by law, rather than purely run on the economic logic. Also, it is advisable to establish the third-party institutions to evaluate content production and adopt an exit mechanism for unqualified media outlets. Finally, the Chinese media should develop an industrial manual to realize quality control and enhance professionalism in news reporting.

 

Qi Tao is from the School of Journalism and Communication at Henan University.

(edited by YANG XUE)