Reporting the Tianjin Explosion: Thoughts on the Chinese Media’s Performance

Just before midnight on August 12 2015, a series of explosions took place in an industrial area in Tianjin, China. The blast occurred after a fire at a shipping container warehouse, which stocks explosive materials and which handles dangerous chemicals. It triggered two powerful explosions one after another within a minute. This accident has caused over 100 deaths, and more than a thousand injuries.

In response to this tragic accident, which is thus far one of the most serious non-nuclear explosions in history, the question is: how did the Chinese media respond? One might immediately think of State censorship, but is it the only issue to be considered in the investigation of the media’s performance? As Twitter account @dwertime (David Wertime) expressed, ‘Post-blast, Citizen journalism is happening in the Chinese port city of #Tianjin whether authorities like it or not’. (20:33 BST, Aug 12 2015) I shall aim to convey in this article that the activities on Chinese media are complex and ill served by a 1984-esque discourse.

Citizen Witnessing

The earliest sources of information following the explosions were the result of ‘citizen witnessing’, a term coined by Professor Stuart Allan, referring to  the attempts of ordinary citizens to engage and share their eye witnessing experiences of an event. Indeed, the initial sources to unfold were video footage captured by citizens with their mobile phones, which were uploaded online through mobile apps and social media platforms such as Miaopai, Weibo, WeChat, Youku. These videos were soon re-uploaded and circulated on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and these eventually became the introductory materials used by the major news media (national and international). As I write, there are more than a dozen video clips that document the moment of the explosion. From the different footage, viewers can immediately see and feel the terrifying power of the blast with their own eyes, through the eyes of these ‘citizen journalists’.

Chinese social media sites helped to circulate these moments of ‘citizen witnessing’ and informed those who were desperately seeking the most up-to-the-minute information. Even if the Government wanted to ‘cover up’ the news, the speed of online circulation and the instant exposure of the ‘citizen witnessing’ became a form of direct resistance essentially beyond the Government’s control.

Government Censorship

It is not unusual for the Chinese government to censor news, reports, and comments while a major event happens.  It has been reported by internet users that several articles with specific themes were taken down or deleted from social media. These articles estimated the number of deaths and injuries and predicted what stories that the State media might be hiding.  That said, not all the investigative articles were targeted, for instance, several in depth articles by Sina and Phoenix news are still available online. Essentially, the censorship aimed to crack down un-verified information and rumours. As the China Daily reported on August 15,  ‘over 360 social media accounts were suspended or shut down for spreading rumours after fatal explosion in Tianjin this week’.

The second evidence of censorship was evident in live news reports on television. The morning after the incident happened, while different State television channels (from central level, to city level) reported the tragedy one after another, the most local Tianjin Satellite Channel appeared to have no sign of special news section. This caused another wave of debate on social media. Some expressed, ‘why is it still playing Korean soap opera, while such a serious event has happened last night? The head of the TV station should be ashamed.’ Another wrote, ‘they have been preparing materials, and putting special news reports together overnight continuously, but are only waiting for a green light.’

Such “careful” decision making is not only decried by individual citizens but also condemned by online news media such as Phoenix News, Sina News and others. Ironic comments such as ‘the world is watching Tianjin, but Tianjin is watching Korean soap’ were circulated among internet users. Some local media practitioners in Tianjin posted updates with pictures of journalists at work, in a hope to ease the public disappointments in the local television’s poor performance. At the same, they wished to generate encouragement for the frontline journalists.After the delay of reporting the event on Tianjin’s local television channel when it finally began to deliver focused news, the content needed to be approved by the State.

Sentimental Redirection

When a disaster occurs“sentimental redirection” is a usual card to play. This  involves PR strategies such as focusing on a heroic imagery sometimes about those who lost their lives in the line of  duty. Such “communication” is often used by several main news media, posting sentimental images online alongside affecting wordings. These posts would then be reposted and circulated by the public, in order to express their sympathy and gratitude toward the heroes. It did not take long to happen in the Tianjin disaster:   illustrations of fireman came with the commentary such as ‘they are the most charming reverse walker in the world’ (which refers to, while everyone else walks away from the danger, they take the opposite direction, toward the danger).

This form of intentional “sentimental redirection” carries elements of propaganda, used in order to shift the audience attention to a new point of focus. It did not take long for individuals to realise something was manufactured about the over dramatic sentiments, in especially after series of investigative articles that were published by Sina News and Phoenix News.  Not long after the explosion, a hashtag of ‘PreventRumours’ also appeared on social media.

Citizen’s Participations

Other types of communication were evident on Chinese social media, mainly on Weibo and WeChat. These contents included: general comments, debates, search for missing victims, list of blood donation sites, list of hospital addresses, free car service offers, information about volunteering/ers, calls for supportive materials, locations of emergency shelters, list of victim’s names, revealing fraud social media accounts and continuous photos and video uploads from the frontline. These posts were widely circulated, providing a platform on which to generate information outside of the “mainstream media”. One of the major debates in the public now is to question whether the Government has released an accurate number of deaths. Some think that the State is misleading and believe that it is more important to investigate toward the cause of this explosion,and to focus on discussions on the necessary evacuation.

Summary: Modes of Report

To summarise the reporting of Tianjin explosion on Chinese media. There were several different modes taking place, by both professionals and amatures. There were the official State press releases with updated number of deaths and injuries, and any approved updates on the investigation (television, online and print). There were investigative reports by private media such as Sina, Peng Bai and Phoenix, three of the most active and critical media throughout the accident. There was  grassroots investigative posts by different individuals on social media. There was  continuous photos and video updates by citizens on social media – opinions and updates on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other “banned media” by Chinese citizens.

As I have tried to report, in a fair manner I hope,  the activities of reporting the Tianjin explosion on Chinese media was hybrid, diverse, complex, and at the same time ever so lively (in resistance). It was such a complicated and unique network of communication – the issues and debates it signals deserves  more in depth discussion and further investigation, beyond taking the usual reputation of Chinese media for granted.

*Meipai is a mobile phone video recording app.

*Weibo is a social media site that functions like a combination of Facebook & Twitter

*WeChat is the major communication app that is used in China, with similar functions like WhatsApp.

*Youku is a video site, functions similarly like YouTube.

Hiu Man Chan is a PhD candidate at JOMEC, and columnist for the UK-Chinese Times. Twitter: @H_onfilm