Quake Coverage: China's Media Milestone

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CHENGDU, China - All media in China are controlled by the communist government. And so shortly after the May 12 earthquake, officials put out instructions on how the earthquake should be covered by journalists.

But the directive was ignored. Some say what happened next was a major milestone for China. 

Good Samaritans

Huang Na is a sales assistant at this popular clothing shop in Chengdu, a few hours south of the quake's epicenter.

Twenty-two year-old Na was just putting out a new line of summer clothes in the store when the ground started to shake.

"I panicked. I thought the whole building was going to collapse on me," she said. "I turned on the television and what I saw broke me heart. So many people had died. Homes were destroyed. It broke my heart, it made me so sad."

So Na and a couple of her friends drove to one of the hardest-hit areas and started handing out water to rescuer workers.

"I needed to do something, anything to help," she said.

Na wasn't alone. Within hours of the earthquake, tens of thousands of Chinese volunteers from around the country descended on Sichuan Province to see how they could lend a helping hand.

China's government, normally cautious about such independent activism, welcomed the outpouring of sympathy and care.

"The whole country was gripped by this disaster and so many responded partly because of how the Chinese media covered this story," Chengdu resident Yang Siying said. 

The Story China's Media Couldn't Ignore

The devastating quake became one of the biggest stories for China's military controlled media, according Professor Xiaoyang Song of the Communication University of China.

"Every reporter knew that if they didn't report on this story they would regret it for the rest of their lives," Song said.

Since the earthquake, she's been helping China's state-run television network direct some their quake coverage.

"Chinese reporters weren't prepared to cover this disaster and so this required us to mobilize in such a monumental way," Song said. "And the way we responded was a milestone event in our nation's history."

Hundreds of Chinese journalists rushed to the earthquake zone from all over the country delivering 24-hour live coverage of the rescue operation.

"This was the first time that I can remember that all the television stations were covering one single story. It was not boring, they made the coverage very interesting," Chengdu resident Jiang Zhang said.

Newspaper, television and radio reporters provided a wide-range of in-depth stories.from heroic rescues to tragic losses to the battles of survival.

Another resident, Luo Gong Ping, said, "They really captured the magnitude of the disaster and to see so many Chinese journalists out on the frontlines sending stories back was very impressive."

And unlike in past disasters, no attempt was made by the media to hide or lie about the extent of the disaster.

Siying said, "The government and the media haven't always been transparent about issues in the past, but what shocked me about this disaster is just how open they've been reporting on what's going on."

The government in Beijing not only rode the national sympathy rally, it saw no point in controlling the information flow.

The greater the coverage, the more support and admiration there seemed to be for the government. Something its leaders took full advantage of.

"I was so touched when Premier Wen Jiabao flew to the epicenter," Zhang said. "To see him there in the middle of the disaster, especially for a man of his position, was incredible."

"China has gone through a rough couple of months from a public relations standpoint," Song said. "We had the snowstorm disaster, the Olympic torch controversy, the Tibet crisis. But the government's quick reaction to this disaster has really improved the image of China." 

Quake Still Rules the Headlines

Three weeks on, news about the quake has yet to fade from the television screens and the front pages in China. The demand for media coverage is still there.

"We still want to know why so many children died in those school buildings," one resident said. "Why weren't they built with more care."

With people having donated so much money to the quake disaster, they want full disclosure as to where all those funds went and just how they're being allocated.

"They want to know where all that money is going and how is it going to be spent." Song said. "They want the media to pay close attention to these other stories."

In the meantime, the tragedy has become a rallying point for all Chinese. So many are wearing t-shirts that proudly proclaim "I love China".

So, has this country brought the people of China together?

According to Siying, "The Chinese people are always united but this disaster has united us even more. We will recover from this and we will be a better nation for it."

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