May 16, 2008

Tracking China’s Earthquake on TV and the Internet

by Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow

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.

Read more about the Internet and censorship in China.