Last month I put out a survey of foreign correspondents who cover China to try and get a sense of how - and whether - blogs are impacting their coverage of China. Many thanks to the 70-plus journalists who took the time to complete at least part of the survey. Respondents included people from major news organizations headquartered in the U.S., UK, Singapore, Russia, Qatar, Poland, Italy, Hong Kong, Germany, France, Finland, Canada, and Australia. There are roughly 400 foreign correspondents accredited officially to cover China, plus an unknown number who do so more informally. So while the answer pool is not huge, I think it at very least serves as a useful "focus group" for the evolving relationship between China bloggers and foreign correspondents who cover China for the international media.
The data will form the core of an academic paper I'm working on, but first I'd like to share the key findings. I would love your feedback. Please feel free to share your reactions in the comments section of this post, or via email. Here goes:
90% follow blogs. 61 out of 68 people said "yes" to the question: "For the purposes of work, do you or your staff ever read blogs written from or about China – either in Chinese or another language?"
41% have been following blogs for 1-2 years, and 22% have been doing so for 2 years or more. (Click the pie chart to enlarge it and see the full breakdown.) When I broke it down and asked people: "About how long have you been following blogs as a source of of story ideas or information?" 9 people answered "no" (For some reason 7 people had answered "no" to the previous question.)
Most respondents find blogs useful for story ideas and information - In fact they find blogs significantly more useful than CCTV, CNN, BBC (radio & TV), overseas forums, BBS & chatrooms, or Chinese radio. I asked the question: "Thinking about the stories you’ve written during the last month, would you say the following sources have been useful to you for story ideas or information in a major way, a minor way, or not at all?" Then provided a range of options. The chart below illustrates the results (click to enlarge):
Most find blogs useful to spot emerging stories and as a general source of story ideas.
I asked the question: "In what way do you find blogs useful?" and provided a range of options to select. On the right is a chart showing all the selections (click to enlarge). Top choices were: 1. "A way to find out about emerging stories sooner than I would otherwise;" 2. "As a general source of story ideas;" 3. "As a source of information that I can’t find elsewhere" tied with "As a gauge of China's popular culture "pulse".
ESWN and Danwei appear to be substantially more important to correspondents than other English-language China-focused blogs. Of the 48 people who responded to this question, 66% said they read ESWN at least weekly; 61% read Danwei at least weekly. 38% said they read ESWN "daily," with 25% claiming to read Danwei daily. While opinions differ as to whether China Digital Times (run from the University of California at Berkeley) is a blog or simply an aggregator of China news from other sources, it's useful to note for comparison and context that 15% said they read China Digital Times daily while 61% said they read it weekly or more. Click on the thumbnail above right to see the raw data breakdown from my survey software.
As you will see by clicking on the chart and looking at all the other blogs, none is as widely read by journalists answering the survey than ESWN and Danwei. One respondent wrote: "ESWN is so much more important than other blogs that it almost deserves a category by itself. No other blog comes as close to serving as a bridge between Mandarin and English media." People also cited several story ideas they've gotten from Danwei. One journalist said she finds Danwei particularly useful because it follows Chinese media regulations very closely and links to original regulations.
The list of choices was compiled by consulting a number of China-based journalists and asking them which blogs they follow regularly. Based on responses to an open-ended follow-up question, two additional English-language blogs that probably should have been included were the Chinese Law Prof blog and the blog written by Richard Spencer of the Daily Telegraph.
Blogs are somewhat more useful to foreign correspondents than BBS and chatrooms. 55 people who responded to the question: "Specifically, which do you find more useful in doing your story research: Blogs or internet forums and BBS?" 25 (46%) said blogs are more useful; 10 (18%) said BBS and chatrooms are more useful; 19 (35%) said they are equally useful; and one person said neither is useful. Many commented that they use blogs versus Internet forums and BBS for different purposes. Internet forums/BBS's are used more as a way to gauge the public mood, while blogs are used more for analysis - let's see what so and so has to say on such and such issue. Both are sources of story tips. Said one respondent: "We use blogs more for ideas and insights and internet forums more for getting a sense of how people feel about an issue." Said another: "They serve different purposes. Blogs tend to give you story ideas, angles and leads, as well as links to relevant BBS sites. BBS is more useful to gauge public opinions on major events." One Asian journalist who finds BBS and Internet forums more useful pointed out: "Interesting stories in the Chinese media are more often copied and pasted on to BBS sites. This doesn't happen as often on blogs."
Most follow Chinese-language blogs: Of those who follow blogs: 57% usually ask Chinese staff to help follow Chinese-language blogs; 32% read Chinese language blogs themselves; 11% don't follow Chinese-language blogs but follow English or other non-Chinese blogs.
I did not ask people to select from some choices of Chinese blogs as I did with English because based on my conversations with journalists while drafting the survey I got the impression that foreign correspondents' reading of Chinese blogs is more diffuse and less consistent. However I did ask people to list the Chinese blogs that they tend to read. Some said "prefer not to divulge" or "ask my assistant." Others mentioned the following (in no particular order) as being useful to their work: Academic criticism, Chen Danqing, Li Yinhe, Law Blog, Wang Yi, Cowblog, Tao Sixuan, Ministry of Finance blogs, Wang Xiaofeng, Family of Chen Guangchen, Keso's tech blog, Lian Yue, Bingfeng Cafe, Zhang Rui, ShiFeiKe, Luo Yonghao, Michael Anti, Zeng Jinyan, Nina Wu, Massage Milk, Pro State in Flames, and Hong Huang.
CREDIBILITY QUESTIONS: Most believe it is impossible to answer question of whether blogs are more or less "reliable" compared to other media. Much is made by media pundits and scholars about the question of whether blogs are "credible" or "reliable" in comparison with mainstream media. So I asked two questions in this vein. The answers indicated that the question is essentially irrelevant when it comes to the reasons why journalists find blogs useful.
The first question concerned Chinese blogs: "Compared to official PRC media, do you find the information on Chinese-language blogs to be: always more reliable; often more reliable but depends from case to case; equally reliable; often less reliable but depends from case to case; always less reliable; completely depends, impossible to generalize; don't know. Of the 49 who responded to this question 21 (43%) chose "completely depends, impossible to generalize." Equal numbers of people (11 or 22%) chose "often more reliable but depends from case to case" and "often less reliable but depends from case to case." Two people each chose "always more reliable" and "equally reliable."
When I invited people to elaborate, one respondent said the question misses the point. He wrote: "One doesn't go to blogs for information. One goes to blogs for opinion, insight and color. The information in Chinese blogs, like the information purveyed in much state media, needs to be double-checked for accuracy. The utility of blogs lies in their indictation of popular interest in a subject or interested or informed opinion on a matter." Another person agreed: ""Reliable" may not be the word best used to describe the differences. Both sources are different and so the information is of different value. Blogs as well as official media can also be unreliable and not trustworthy sources. It really depends." A third person wrote at length:
Official PRC media are by definition not reliable as theyr are a state source, but good to use as such. Blogs quality depend on a personal factor, and very often authors are not bound by any professional journalistic technique or ethics. They are motivated by personal, ego, political or other motivations, and reflect this goal. Therefore they are to be used as an inspiration for stories or good quote material, not as a reliable news source. Of course, they can be first on news stories when these news are suppressed by official media, but generally cannot be considered as a bona fide news source themselves.
I asked a second question about non-Chinese language blogs: "Compared to China coverage by foreign news organizations, English and other non-Chinese language blogs focused on China are: always more reliable; often more reliable but depends from case to case; equally reliable; often less reliable but depends from case to case; always less reliable; completely depends, impossible to generalize; don't know." Of the 50 who responded to this question 19 (38%) chose "completely depends, impossible to generalize;" 11 chose "often more reliable but depends from case to case; 9 chose "often less reliable but depends from case to case;" 4 chose "equally reliable," 3 chose "always more reliable," and 1 chose "always less reliable." The message here is once again all over the map, but with strong leanings towards "completely depends." And again, the view is that "reliability" is the wrong way to look at blogs. As one respondent wrote:
Blogs are great for watching topical issues emerge and get dissected, and for aggregating news from a variety of other sources, but they don't necessarily verify the information they serve up. But blogs shouldn't be expected to do this -- it is up to the end-user of the information to decide what to do with it, including verifying sources and facts.
the blogs often aren't reporting spot news, so it's hard to speak of reliability. it's more opinion and commentary, and if you follow a blog over time you get to know who generally knows what they're talking about. where it sometimes is 'spot news' a good example would be danwei linking to new regulations on chinese media, for which i would be thankful for the tip-off, but then hope to look for the original of the regs myself. i wouldn't cite a blog on spot news, for example. they're often more just to stay plugged in in a general way. eg. say i spend a week with my head in nothing but the china-africa forum, a few clicks on danwei and eswn and a couple of others give me a quick idea of what's on people's minds in other areas.
...and another, in the same vein:
Reliability isn't what draws me to some blogs. For instance, I look at Roland Soong to see what's cooking in all sorts of spheres that I would never see otherwise. It's a virtual news tip sheet. Some of it is translation, so reliability may be a big question. But Roland does a huge service by bringing it to our attention.
This is very much the way I have tended to describe the relationship between blogs and journalists: journalists approach blogs as raw sources. Thus asking whether blogs are reliable is just as useless as asking whether people are reliable. Each tipoff or story idea coming from any human source must be judged in a very specific context: Does that person have any real expertise in the subject at hand? Is his/her knowledge first, second, third or fourth hand? Does he/she bear a grudge or conflict of interest? What is his/her agenda in telling you the information? Etc.
I'll be writing up these results, with some more follow-up and analysis, in a more formal academic paper which may get published sometime later next year - at the earliest - given the speed of academic publishing. Meanwhile I thought it would be useful to post some of this relatively raw data because I know that many of the journalists who took the survey are curious about the results.
Please feel free to post your reactions and any questions in the comments section by clicking the "comments" link below.