© The Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Research funded by a grant from The Ford Foundation
June, 1992


During the Beijing Spring of 1989, people around the world witnessed powerful events unfolding in a remote and previously inaccessible corner of the globe. This worldwide real-time audience had existed on a few rare occasions before, for such events as the Americans' landing on the moon in 1969. But there was something different this time. Many in the audience were politically galvanized by what they saw.

Starting with Tiananmen, the reach of the press, especially television, into virtually any country at any time became an important new factor in international diplomacy. The global zoom lens which focused on China soon moved on to Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf and the dissolving Soviet Union. [For a discussion of how television affected the reunification of Germany, for example, see "Window to the West: How Television from the Federal Republic Influenced Events in East Germany" by Dieter Buhl, Discussion Paper D-5, Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.]

To be sure, the United States media's attention to the China story was fostered by a confluence of factors. These included preparations for coverage of the Sino-Soviet summit that predated the outbreak of the protests, and the unprecedented access to the dramatic fixed location of Tiananmen granted in advance to American television networks by the Chinese government. History never repeats itself exactly and Tiananmen will not recur in its 1989 form, nor will the media's experience in China ever be duplicated elsewhere in much the same fashion.

Yet the China coverage was in some ways a turning point for the media as well as the policy-makers and the audience. "It was after Tiananmen Square that we really redefined how we do television.... As I went to cover the war in the Gulf, the lessons of China were with me every moment," concluded Susan Zirinsky, who produced much of CBS's Beijing Spring coverage.

I. The Quality of the Coverage

Working under intense, confusing and dangerous conditions, many journalists performed beyond the call of duty to provide instant and thoughtful coverage of the Beijing Spring to the wider world. As the Pulitzer Prize and other awards granted to such coverage attest, it was, for some journalists, the finest performance of their careers.

Nevertheless, critics have raised a number of issues which this study attempted to address. In some cases, the complaints were not so much about the coverage as about the fact that the Chinese government's violent crackdown on the protesters was seen on television by a horrified audience. It is unfair to blame the messenger--the media--for the power of those images and their effect on the global political landscape. Regrettably, it was beyond the scope of this study to determine whether the journalists' pro-student framework for coverage--or the powerful pictures themselves of the government's crackdown--did more to shape public opinion about the events. More than likely, both factors influenced public opinion.

The study was, however, able to examine and evaluate a representative sample of the U.S. coverage. Some complaints did not hold up under this scrutiny. In particular :

-- Some American government officials, China specialists and others spoke of the-media failure to anticipate the incipient crisis. But neither did China specialists, foreign governments, nor, for that matter, most of the Chinese people. All of the news organizations in this study were alert to the possibilities of government use of force to repress the movement, and reported the initial restraint exercised by both sides. They offered repeated cautions in the two weeks before June 3 about the prospect of repression and possibly violence. Perhaps the American public itself, grasping hopes, ignoring dangers, was inordinately swayed by the inspiring image of the "Goddess of Democracy" that arose in Tiananmen Square at the end of May.

-- Likewise, the media cannot be blamed for running stories about the prospect of civil war after June 4. The possibility was being taken seriously by many Chinese, Western military attaches in Beijing and governments around the world (including the United States State Department and the French Foreign Ministry). The problem was the level of attribution and the certitude that crept into the stories. Ultimately, the possibility of intra-military strife was stated as fact.

However our study did find some areas in which the coverage failed to live up to expected Western standards of objectivity and accuracy. We present these findings with the admitted benefit of hindsight, in hopes that they will help journalists, policy-makers and scholars understand and deal more effectively with the role of the press in future international crises.

These findings are as follows:

-- Much of the coverage favored the protesters.
While a neutral observer from a democratic society might naturally have sided with the protesters, regardless of how the media filtered the events, the coverage itself did at times violate journalistic standards of detachment, objectivity and fairness. This was a function as much of what was omitted as what was included in the coverage.

First, there was insufficient coverage of aspects of the student movement that might have run counter to its positive image. "There was clearly a need in the coverage of Tiananmen Square for skepticism, not only about the Chinese government ... but also about the student movement and the manipulation of the media--or effort to--that was being done by the students," said Jeff Sommer of Newsday in retrospect.

The students often were depicted, particularly on television, as the righteous side of a Manichean conflict, rather than as a subject of neutral scrutiny by the press. Specifically, the press underreported the pro-democracy movement's actions that were distinctly undemocratic, hypocritical or elitist. Conflicts among the protesters were downplayed, as well as the reluctance of some student leaders to welcome workers into their movement. There were inadequate attempts to report the source of funds the movement received, and whether they were properly used and accounted for.

Fuller coverage of the government's reasons for fearing the student demands, assuming the reasons were explained, would not have constituted an apologia, but it might have led to a more sober expectation by the American public of prospects for the movement's success.

It is the role of the editor or the executive producer in the home office to keep field correspondents from "going native" and identifying too closely with their beats. It is also the role of editors and producers to welcome and encourage stories that run counter to perceived truth, such as a few Chinese hunger strikers eating.

-- The technology outpaced the journalism, which created some serious problems.
By comparison with the media covering China in previous decades, the resident Beijing press corps in 1989 was both larger and better equipped, in language skills, cultural awareness, time in the field and high-tech gear. The use of new technology, including cordless telephones, small "Handicams," faxes and "pixelators" that send visual images over telephone lines, enhanced the quality of the coverage and the access of both print and broadcast media to the story.

The contribution of television from China was enormous, especially in breaking down the sense of China as remote and "exotic" and making the cause of the Chinese students seem a universal cause. At the same time, there seemed to be too much emotion in the reporting and too little discretion in what was aired on TV.

The ease with which TV could go "live" created several problems: it allowed the inclusion of misleading or irrelevant materials, including unverified rumors that were hard to check and resist in the competitive pressure to provide something new; it cut into texture and context that would have provided a much fuller and more balanced account; and it placed the lives of some people depicted in the news accounts--wittingly or unwittingly--in danger. Some Chinese sources who appeared in news reports suddenly found themselves in danger. They were identified by authorities. Under U.S.norms, anyone is fair game for news cameras. But when covering such events as the Beijing Spring protests and violence, news professionals should have been more sensitive to the dangers to which their sources were subjected.

"Don't be afraid of pictures, but encourage us to be careful about pictures," urged David Caravello of CBS. While decisions were made hour by hour not to take certain pictures or not to air certain pictures, others were broadcast that should not have been. One example could be the June 14 footage of the Chinese man who tried unsuccessfully to avoid Jackie Judd's ABC camera by putting his hand in front of the lens.

At times the footage was misused to portray something other than what was actually filmed. Some of this happened, because producers in New York and Washington were compiling summary pieces without clarifying what was happening where. Sinologist David Zweig, who was involved in an ABC special that looked back at the crisis, told us, "I asked a producer why they used footage of citizens beating soldiers when (the script) was talking about violence by the army. The answer was that they had no footage of the army shooting people." This misuse of pictures is not only unacceptable under Western journalism norms but it seriously undermines the credibility of the media.

Much important news occurred off-camera, which added to the distortions in the coverage. "If there were cameras at the Minzu Hotel or elsewhere on the streets of West Beijing (that night), the reaction of the public and government might have been different," remarked Jim Mann of the Los Angeles Times. The cameras cannot film everything; the inquiring mind must always seek additional information for context and interpretation.

Broadcast journalists and audiences are just learning that in live broadcasts, truth remains conditional. The mystery of what might happen next is a part of the attraction. No one on either side of the camera or microphone should assume the information is complete. Broadcasters must evolve rules of behavior and coverage that limit or cushion the impact of inadvertent dissemination of misleading messages. Soon, print reporters may be carrying satellite dishes on their backs and small cameras, doing what used to be the province of a four-person television crew, and that will bring new challenges and responsibilities. "I think we have to worry about that," said Al Pessin of VOA. "I think the more live stuff that goes out, the more mistakes are made, the more garbage that goes out. I did some live stuff, but I very much valued that forty minutes to just sit, think about it, put it down on paper, make a few changes before I went on the air."

Certainly, when we really get to the stage that the satellite dish is carried around with camera and cordless phone, editorial judgment will need to be tighter and more sophisticated than it was in the China case.

"One of the great lessons of China," concluded Susan Zirinsky of CBS, "is that because it can be live, doesn't mean you have to give it to then live."

-- Lopsided access created lopsided coverage.
In international crisis situations (in China and in subsequent locales, such as Panama, the Persian Gulf and Russia), some of the "players" may not be accessible to provide reporters with their sides of the story. The China coverage was somewhat hampered by the fact that the conservatives in the Chinese government refused to talk to the press, and the only officials who did talk, even surreptitiously, to the press favored the reformist faction. This led to false optimism at one point that the reform faction might win the struggle. A more nuanced approach to such sources, with a clearer sense of their own limitations and agenda, would have improved the coverage significantly.

In addition, the press didn't reach adequately beyond the sources in Beijing to examine what was happening in the rest of China. This was partly due to understaffing, partly to geographic convenience: the events in Beijing dominated the coverage because that was where the press was gathered, and where the cameras were located. Thus there was insufficient attention to the fact that the democracy upsurge was more than a student movement, and more than a Beijing phenomenon. None of the media dealt adequately with the role of workers and other non-students in the movement. Only print made clear the particular fear of worker participation that was felt by Deng and other leaders, who were aware of the danger an independent labor organization--such as Solidarity in Poland--would pose to the Communist Party's control over China.

Only after the crackdown did some of the eight news organizations seek to establish what the 75 percent of the Chinese people who live in the countryside knew, believed or favored. It was too little, too late. If the peasants didn't matter--an unlikely conclusion--the press should have said so, and why.

-- "Parachute" and "visit" journalists were no substitute for journalists with in-country experience.

Whenever there is an international crisis, whether it be in Panama or the Persian Gulf or the former Soviet Union, the supply of journalists with specialized skills will inevitably fall behind the demand, and this happened in China. A small army of "parachute" journalists, who specialize in going from breaking news event to news event around the globe, descended on Beijing in full force. They are highly professional, but they are not specialists. Therefore, it is not surprising that reporters with China experience did a better job of sifting rumors and judging news. A dearth of China expertise occasionally diminished the networks' coverage. Insights into Beijing politics sometimes were unavailable or went unused.

The China experience underscores the time-tested observation that the press should avoid covering any major country only from crisis to crisis or by "parachute" journalism--the big correspondent who arrives and says (in the words of Jim Mann of the Los Angeles Times) "Take me to the repression!" Deng had repeatedly emphasized his intolerance of free speech as early in the reform period as 1979. Visiting journalists often lost sight of such realities, thinking that China, like Russia, was undergoing a profound liberalization. They thought that communism was wafting away on the breeze. As Ted Gup of Time put it, the media have to learn how to cover a "slow strangulation as opposed to a blow on the head."

-- There were significant lapses in factual accuracy by some journalists.

The fact that other journalists got the story right undermines the argument that the errors were due to the genuine danger and hardship of the job. The need to fill a 24-hour news hole, to beat the competition, to justify the costs of sending extra people to Beijing--all this ended up driving much bad information into the public record.

Some journalists risked their lives to cover the People's Liberation Army's sweep through the streets of Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989. The accounts offered by reporters on the scene were often accurate and compelling. The problem, as always in the midst of chaos and violence, lay in the judgment of what use to make of accounts from non-journalistic witnesses and participants. Instead of erring on the side of caution, some journalists simply passed on the latest unverified rumors that crossed their paths.

Keeping in mind that hindsight often adds unfair advantages to any analysis, this study nonetheless concludes that some of the media should have come closer to a rounded appreciation of the events of June 3-4 within the first week. Wildly inflated casualty figures and the use of the geographically erroneous catch phrase "Tiananmen Square massacre" gave the Chinese government a pretext for deflecting the central moral issue raised by its brutal response to the protesters. If some of the media were wrong about how many people died, and where, were they also wrong about the significance of the killings? No, they were not. But the exaggerations and the error of geography permitted that question to be raised, and undercut the media's credibility in some quarters.

-- The coverage was at times parochial.

At times shorthand catch-phrases, such as "pro-democracy" movement--which meant one thing to American viewers and another thing to the protesters--were over-used, eclipsing the complexity of the protesters' viewpoints.

Several news organizations, allowing a Cold War framework to oversimplify the struggle as one between democracy and communism, gave the impression that the protesters were seeking the overthrow of the Communist Party. Most students recognized that there was no immediate alternative to Party rule, and were instead seeking greater Party responsiveness to their needs and interests.

II. The Impact of the Coverage

While it is difficult to trace the actual impact of press coverage on public policy, this study suggests that:

-- The coverage, particularly "live television," touched an emotional chord with the American people and changed the political climate for U.S. policy-makers, making it more difficult for President Bush to proceed with his policy of cooperating with China.

The sheer volume of reporting of the Chinese protest movement and its suppression nay have intensified the swing of American public opinion away from an accommodating view of China. While nearly three-quarters of the American public had a favorable impression of China in early 1989, only one in three Americans now regard China favorably. Observed Harry Harding in the Brookings Review (spring, 1992):

"Since the crisis in Tiananmen Square in June 1989... Americans have perceived China in much darker terms: repressive at home, irresponsible abroad, engaging in unfair commercial policies toward the United States. Both houses of Congress have passed, by large majorities, legislation that could cost China its most-favored-nation trade status. Even the Bush administration, having spent enormous amounts of its dwindling political capital to preserve a relationship that so many Americans now question, seems disenchanted with Peking."

However, journalists told us they made no conscious decision to mount a massive coverage; they merely followed the events. "Was the world clamoring for more?" asked Susan Zirinsky of CBS, when we asked her about the motivation behind the saturation coverage. "It wasn't my purpose to determine what the world was clamoring for. I saw a story unfolding, and it was my job to give it to the world."

-- The Chinese media's coverage of the student movement had an impact within China that was little recognized at the time.

The Chinese media's brief moment of freedom, which led to favorable reporting on the protest movement, was incorrectly viewed by many Chinese people as a signal that officials condoned the movement. Research by Linda Jakobson for this study concluded that the Chinese press coverage unwittingly may have misled peasants and workers to believe that they could join the student protest without penalty from the government.

The eight American news organizations in our study made reference to the brief "window of freedom" the Chinese media enjoyed, but did not emphasize that it was this press freedom that spread the word across China.

The Western media's coverage may have affected the student protesters as well. "Did we incite the demonstrations by being there? I don't think so. I will admit there was comfort for the students that we were recording events," concluded Susan Zirinsky of CBS. Shen Tong, who handled much of the public relations and press liaison for the student protesters, observed that his comrades, having initially focused their efforts on the Chinese press, changed their target once they recognized the power of the world press to help them "make noise through cameras and newspapers."

-- The Tiananmen Square coverage was a watershed moment in defining different roles for television and print journalism. Television became the raw "news" and print became the analysis and research-based reservoir of facts. While newspapers used to set the news agenda for both
television and print, that was reversed by the live shots from Beijing.

As Daniel Southerland of the Washington Post put it, "I don't even feel I'm in the same world with television. Some of that television stuff was really moving in a way I don't think I could have achieved." Jeff Sommer of Newsday confessed that "CNN is the key, actually to all of it." CNN led the other networks to devote more live coverage to the crisis and brought a worldwide audience together, thus "setting an agenda for all of us," he said. "That is something new.... It just began to take place in Tiananmen Square."

Jim Mann of the Los Angeles Times agreed. "At least for my newspaper, Tiananmen represented the end of the old era of coverage. We covered (China) with four reporters. In the Gulf War, you're talking about twenty to twenty-five reporters.... More importantly, you're assuming that the readership already knew the main news of the day by the time it read the newspaper, and that what you were providing was investigative work and context. I mean, we did a main news story each day, but we just assumed that it was going to be the least read story that there was. Yes, when you look back at Tiananmen, that was the end of an old era."

This more dramatic separation of roles brought out the best and worst in both media. It enabled television to do what it does best--provide powerful pictures and immediacy--but occasionally at the expense of comprehension. It enabled print to provide the facts and analysis, but without the powerful images. For example, the subsurface power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party--prior to its emergence into public view on May 19--was adequately reported by the five print news organizations in our sample, but the three television networks gave viewers only hints.

David Caravello of CBS defended the simplicity of television's coverage. "People in the streets, no repression, these were remarkable events. They are not very complicated. I think that was communicated across the board, print, television, radio.... None of us are graduate seminars.... That's why we need the experts. And I want to caution, let's not say the media ought to be graduate seminars. I wonder if we're not heading that way." This report concludes that while it may be true that too much is expected of the media in the 1990s, it may also be true that the media should take the responsibilities of their increased influence on public opinion and policy into consideration a bit more seriously.

The events of 1989 in China were themselves so powerful in political as well as human or emotional terms that had there been no wobbliness of the media prism, the result of China's image in the world might well have been substantially the same. Still, news organizations can benefit both themselves and the public interest by a periodic review of their mechanisms and norms of coverage. The media have become too important in today's world to simply turn to the next story and expect to repeat the same triumphs--and perhaps repeat the same mistakes.


© The Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1992
All Rights Reserved

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