When journalists stumble onto a story that sounds too juicy to be true, it may well be – so they're taught to double-check the facts before publishing.
But a British newspaper last month ran a piece of blarney with the headline, “China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog.” The story about natural light-starved China's virtual sunrises went viral as news organizations around the world picked it up, with headlines like Smog-bound Beijing resorts to virtual sunrises and Smog in Beijing is so awful you have to catch the sunrise on a big screen.
It took bloggers to expose the hoax by pointing out that the sunrise on the TV monitors in Tiananmen Square was part of a tourism commercial that plays year round, regardless of the time of day or level of pollution. Even then, many news outlets refused to retract or correct the initial erroneous reports.
The episode isn’t just about shoddy reporting on one inconsequential story, several netizens debated. They said it reflects a bias that many Western journalists have toward China and other developing countries: to always believe, and report, the worst. As Immense_Rainbowman posted on Reddit:
The western media love any kind of story that puts a bad light on China. It's part of the whole current anti-China sentiment that has risen steadily since China's economic growth. An easy follow-on from the anti-communism sentiment from the last generation.
The narrative is that life is terrible in China, and it's to distract the Western population from our own troubles, where quality of life is taking a downturn because of recession and debt.
Another Reddit user, “wetac0s,” added: “never trust any news about China from Western media.”
How the story got started
The story originated in the UK's Daily Mail on January 17. James Nye, a Daily Mail reporter who lives in New York, wrote:
The smog has become so thick in Beijing that the city's natural light-starved masses have begun flocking to huge digital commercial television screens across the city to observe virtual sunrises.
The futuristic screens installed in the Chinese capital usually advertize tourist destinations, but as the season's first wave of extremely dangerous smog hit – residents donned air masks and left their homes to watch the only place where the sun would hail over the horizon that morning.
The article was accompanied by four photos from Tiananmen Square, the iconic plaza in Beijing, which does indeed feature gigantic TV monitors. One of the pictures showed a sunrise being displayed on a screen, with the caption, “Virtual sunlight”.
Nye's story got picked up by dozens of media outlets around the world, from CBS and The Huffington Post to Business Insider and AOL. Invariably, they echoed the Daily Mail hogwash, saying the digital screens were “the only way people were going to see the sun.”
Within a few days, the misinformation had polluted the social media environment. On Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, people passed along the bogus story:
Photo: Beijing Citizens, Shrouded In Pollution, Flock To Giant Screens To View Artificial Sunrise | Zero… http://t.co/ojrD5TKPAl
— New Aesthetic Bot (@newaestheticbot) January 20, 2014
Exposing the hoax
There were signs from Day 1 that something was amiss. Shortly after the Daily Mail put its story online, a reader, Cole Ranze, posted a comment questioning its veracity:
To be fair, the billboard with the image of the sun is clearly displaying a tourism advertisement for Shandong province, no doubt just one of many in a string of beautiful images meant to illustrate the beauty of that region. I think this article is a bit misleading, to be sure.
But it wasn't until January 20 that the blog Tech in Asia definitively exposed the Daily Mail report and the stories it spawned as a hoax. Under the headline “No, Beijing residents are NOT watching fake sunrises on giant TVs because of pollution,” editor Paul Bischoff called the entire story “complete bullshit”:
In truth, that sunrise was probably on the screen for less than 10 seconds at a time, as it was part of an ad for tourism in China’s Shandong province. The ad plays every day throughout the day all year round no matter how bad the pollution is. The photographer simply snapped the photo at the moment when the sunrise appeared.
Bischoff chastised news organizations that were so eager to carry the Daily Mail fabrication without checking the facts. “International media should be embarrassed for not taking even a moment to second guess the Daily Mail, one of the least reputable news sources in the UK,” Bischoff wrote. He added:
Shame on any media that ran this farce. China has its problems, but they have proven themselves far too eager to criticize just to attract hits from the shock factor. Beijing pollution is bad enough without the added dishonest sensationalism.
Bischoff tweeted his knock-down …
— Paul Bischoff (@pabischoff) January 20, 2014
… and it rippled through the blogosphere. On the same social media platforms where the sham earlier circulated, correction alarms sounded.
“Well, we’ve been duped,” an environmentalist in Washington, D.C., posted on his Tumblr. On a blog ordinarily devoted to video games, a man called the initial Daily Mail story “disingenuous.” And a UK political blogger, Tom Pride, noted that “Daily Mail story about sunrises being shown on big screens in Beijing was made up.”
The bigger story: failed media ethics
Of course, the belated corrections will never catch up to the initial falsehoods. As the 19th-century preacher C.H. Spurgeon once said, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”
Even now, only a few outlets that ran the fake sunrise-on-TV story, such as Time, have pulled or corrected it.
But the issue is far bigger than one false news report. It speaks to the state of media ethics, or lack thereof.
“How do relatively respectable outfits like Time, HuffPo and CBS jump onboard with circulating fake stories? Simply by not checking, for one,” reporter Gwynn Guilford wrote in the online business publication Quartz. Her article was titled, “Westerners are so convinced China is a dystopian hellscape they’ll share anything that confirms it.”
To many reporters, if the meme fits, they'll go with it, no questions asked. In this case, the Daily Mail concoction fit the impression many Westerners have of China.
“And by interweaving the themes of pollution and the government’s Orwellian-tinged attempts to control daily life, the Daily Mail offers a double-whammy of Western reader stereotypes about China,” Guilford wrote.
That enticed other publications to serve up the phony story to their readers as well.
“This isn’t the first China lie that gets picked up and broadcast by Western news media. Mike Daisey’s fabricated NPR story on ‘This American Life’ comes prominently to mind,” wrote Patrick Lozada, managing editor of the news and culture blog Beijing Cream. The headline of his post was “Why the Fake Pollution Billboard Story Matters.”
Many countries besides China get this treatment.
Earlier in January, U.S. news outlets breathlessly claimed that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had his uncle executed in December by stripping him naked and feeding him to 120 hungry dogs. That report originated in a sketchy Hong Kong newspaper, was picked up a paper in Singapore and then burst into American media.
However, the story clearly was fraudulent, according to Max Fisher of The Washington Post. He listed several tip-offs, including: The initial story had no sources; and the media in China and South Korea, where reporters are most knowledgeable about North Korea, ignored the report.
“But all of this raises the question: why are so many people – and so many major U.S. media outlets – still willing to treat this implausible story as plausible?” Fisher asked.
A blog called Pacific Side then aggregated substantial evidence that the fed-to-the-dogs story was fed to the media as satire on Weibo, China's microblogging service.
For many news consumers, the episode said more about the media's behavior than Kim Jong Un's:
Jesus, media too lazy to check sources in internet age: ‘Kim Jong-un's uncle being fed dogs originated with satirist http://t.co/LvJJbCU61m
— Suzanne Williams (@suziegwilliams) January 20, 2014
Jeff South is a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is currently visiting Changchun, China, as a Fulbright scholar.