Up In Flames: The Path of Digital News Out Of China
Last night, the CCTV building in Beijing caught fire at around 9 pm, the result of an unfortunate New Years' fireworks blunder. This was somewhat embarrassing to China Central Television as it appears that their own employees might be responsible for this accident. Not surprisingly, no news report appeared on television in the initial few hours after the fire began.
Anyone who pays any attention at all to China will know that bad news faces many obstacles on its way to reaching the rest of the world. And this was a perfect example. But in recent years new social media tools ensure that information can spread (pardon the pun) like wildfire. Here's the path that this particular story took.
Well known citizen journalist Zuola got the news via a GTalk message chat from his friend Wang near the scene. This was at 9:04pm, just after the fire started.
Wang: China Central Television has burned! ! ! The new building.
Zuola: Really? Do you have photos?
Zuola: Where did this information come from?
Wang: My aunt lives next to it.
Zuola: Can you have your aunt take some photos?
Wang: She took some pics, but she can't use the computer.
Zuola: She phoned you?
Zuola: How did she describe it? Is it a big fire? Caused by fireworks?
Wang: Yes. My school is next to it. I don't need to go to class.
Now if you want news to get spread around the internet fast, Zuola is the best man for the job. He's thrown spotlight on various issues in China that otherwise might be passed over. He's on twitter and the Chinese equivalents, and if he tweets news it gets re-tweeted exponentially. At 9:10 he sent the following tweet:
"Two GTalk friends, one phone message, three sources of information, says Beijing's new CCTV Tower is on fire, caused by fireworks, it's the big Pants Tower"
He would then discover that it was not the famous "Pants Tower" but rather the building next to it, also owned by CCTV. Just minutes later at 9:17 pm Zuola tweeted the address of a google doc he had whipped up, where he added a massive collection of photos from the scene and links to relevant blog posts and forums as they sprung up on the internet. Someone also made a similar page using Dropbox.
A massive crowd had gathered near the burning building, despite police and military efforts to keep them away. More cell phones and cameras meant more pictures and videos would go to the web. The next two hours progressed like this, and at 10:53, even before Reuters and CNN had their reports ready Shanghaiist, a well-known English language news blog, had a collection of these photos, tweets, and video online.
Chinese media portal had also collected information about the event, devoting whole pages to the CCTV fire. But before too long the order came down from censors that this was a no-no:
"To all websites: Report related to the Fire in the CCTV new building, please only use Xinhua news report. No photo, no video clip, no in-depth report; the news should be put on news area only, close the comment posts, don't top the forum blogpost, don't recommend posts related with the subject."
CCTV eventually got around to reporting the fire at 12:20 am, more than 3 hours after it all started. Their report was quick, and if you blinked you might have missed half of it. It lasted 20 seconds, and contained no pictures or video.
Online video sites, however, were showing the latest shots uploaded by eye-witnesses. Youtube was surprisingly the best source, with far more videos of the fire than anyone else in the early hours. Chinese video giants Youku and Ku6 had some content as well, but not nearly as much. After all, they too are technically subject to the media ban mentioned above.
Anytime there is a big news story like this many Chinese citizen journalists feel a responsibility to share all the information they can, because they know there will be no "Man-on-the-scene" journalism from Chinese Television. At least not right away. Hierarchical authority structures in China ensure that traditional media moves even slower than in other countries.
That was certainly the case here. And while this information was not as urgent as some other situations we've seen in China, it does serve as a good case study that no matter how many obstacles stand in their way - be it distance, language barriers, or censorship - Chinese people now have the tools to have their voice heard within minutes.