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Out of the Media Spotlight

Why Falun Gong is Not in the Papers

The following is adapted from a paper given at the University of Westminister’s China Media Centre conference, London, June 2006.

“Concentration Camp for Falun Gong Disclosed; Prisoners Killed for Organs,” read the headline of a March 9, 2006 Falun Dafa Information Center release sent to foreign news bureaus in Beijing. The article went on to describe China’s Sujiatun camp, said to have secretly held some 6,000 practitioners of Falun Gong. According to one witness, three quarters of them had already been killed. Like all foreign media with offices in China, The Associated Press (AP) then chose not to report the story.

But on March 28, 2006 AP did pick up a statement on the same story from a very different source—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Curiously, AP, which did not find the concentration camp allegations worth reporting in the first place, deemed the CCP’s denial of the story newsworthy.

Not that CCP denials are new. The regime denies the use of torture, denied the spread of SARS, and to this day denies gunning down protesters in 1989. So why did AP make these decisions about what to report and what to ignore? 

In many ways, the AP report, “China Denies Falun Gong Allegations of Organ Harvesting,” is typical of biases often found, with a few notable exceptions, in Western media articles about human rights in China and the campaign against Falun Gong in particular.

In one study, I examined 1,879 articles about Falun Gong that appeared in the leading newspapers and wire services of the English-speaking world (such as the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, AP and Reuters). Among the research findings, which I presented at association of Media Studies conferences in Taipei and in London, are the following. 

Coverage of Falun Gong has decreased, even as torture and killing increase

Like most Western media, AP first reported on Falun Gong in late April 1999 when over 10,000 adherents of the spiritual practice gathered quietly in Beijing. Prior to that, the story of tens of millions suddenly practicing Falun Gong exercises in Chinese parks during the 1990s, like the CCP’s escalating suppression of the discipline leading up to the now-famous gathering were all but completely ignored by Western press.

On the eve of the Party’s 1999 Falun Gong ban, therefore, Western journalists (and scholars) were caught off guard. Their knowledge of Falun Gong was limited, with the earliest reporters not even sure what to call it in English.

Soon reporters were faced with a new challenge—a massive, violent, and often bizarre campaign against the equally foreign group. Falun Gong became a headline item, as journalists told of meditators on Tiananmen Square being beaten and loaded onto police vans.

Initially, a single case of a Falun Gong practitioner being tortured to death was considered newsworthy. Yet as the documented death toll climbed into the thousands, Western media grew increasingly silent. Coverage has markedly declined since 2001, to the point where articles on Falun Gong from correspondents in China are now rare. USA Today and the London Guardian for instance, have not reported from China on Falun Gong in over six years.

Articles that do appear are often sparked and framed by the CCP

Scholars who study media have long known that powerful governments have tremendous influence over the production of news, whereas human rights and community-based groups struggle to get any attention. It is a variation of the “might-makes-right” approach:  “might-makes-newsworthy.”

AP’s article about the organ harvesting charges epitomizes this dynamic. Weeks of press conferences concerning the allegations and protests in over a dozen countries were ignored, yet one short denial from a CCP spokesperson promptly generated an AP report.

Other news services, such as Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Reuters, follow this pattern as well. My study found that Party officials, Chinese court officials (who are ultimately subordinated to the Party in these cases), and state-run media (like Xinhua) were cited as the main sources of news in the headline or opening paragraphs of articles about Falun Gong four times as often as Falun Gong sources and three times as often as rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In other words, for every article with a headline like: “Falun Gong Woman Says She was Tortured,” four articles had a headline like: “China Sentences Sect Member.”

It is not surprising, then, that Western media articles sparked by a Chinese government action also bear the marks of the Communist Party’s spin—for instance, using terms with negative connotations to describe Falun Gong, such as “sect,” or worse, “cult.” 

The Communist Party and its critics receive unequal chances within articles

Reporters often contend that their articles must be balanced. If, say, they quote Falun Gong practitioners making certain claims, they will then seek quotations from CCP officials to balance out the charges—to be “fair” to both sides. In this relativistic approach it matters not if one side is making fact-based claims and the other is blatantly lying. The distinction is left up to the reader to determine. An analogy makes clear the problems with this approach. Imagine the following:  “Jewish activists accuse Hitler of arresting millions of their people and carrying out an extermination campaign in concentration camps. A German Embassy spokesperson said the allegations were a complete fabrication and part of a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world”—that is the model.

Setting aside for the moment ethical concerns about this model of “balance,” this approach is further troubled by an uneven application—tilted toward those in power. For instance, the AP article about organ harvesting allegations quoted CCP spokesperson Qin Gang. For Falun Gong’s side, however, AP simply referred to online information and did not consult or quote a representative of the group.

Again, this is part of a pattern. My study examined 1,308 AP articles that mentioned Falun Gong at least once. In articles that included Falun Gong’s claim that adherents have died from torture in custody, the CCP was given a chance to directly respond 50.2 percent of the time.

By contrast, when AP cited one of the CCP’s major accusations toward Falun Gong—i.e., that practitioners died from refusing medical treatment or suicide—Falun Gong was given a chance to respond only 17.9 percent of the time.

In other words, if this were a televised debate, the CCP spokesperson would be given the microphone to respond to every other FLG accusation, whereas the FLG spokesperson would be allowed to respond to one out of every five.

Further, the data shows AP stating that Falun Gong’s allegations of torture could “not be verified” nine times as often as it qualifies CCP claims about Falun Gong. Falun Gong’s “allegations,” however, are backed by reports from Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, among others, while the Communist Party has never allowed an open investigation of its accusations; they have yet to be substantiated by a single neutral organization. This fact seems to have been lost on AP. 

In short, there is a double bias: First, articles are more likely to be triggered by a CCP action (e.g. it is not news if Falun Gong claims it, but it is news if the Chinese government denies it). Then, within the pre-framed report, the CCP is consistently given a more dominant position. Particularly problematic in this case is that the entity prompting the articles and influencing their tone is the one responsible for the documented torture and killings these articles ostensibly discuss.

Before proposing some explanations for this double bias, I should first qualify my critique. To be fair, there have been some excellent, comprehensive articles about Falun Gong in China. Some journalists have gone to great personal risk to cover this story, and it is thanks to their work that we have many key details about the persecution Falun Gong has faced; the Wall Street Journal’s Ian Johnson with his Pulitzer-winning pieces on torture and the 610 Office, and the Washington Post’s Philip Pan’s exposé about the immolation come to mind. Also, I recall personally observing and being impressed with how then-AP reporter Chris Decherd handled a sensitive Falun Gong story in Phnom Penh five years ago.

But these are exceptions. Chinese diplomats and some overseas Chinese who insist on defending the Beijing regime claim that Western media regularly blow China’s abuses out of proportion. The reality, at least in Falun Gong’s case, is that the issue of human rights in China is increasingly disappearing from newspaper columns.

There are other patterns. Articles are often decontextualized, a recurring phenomenon according to a 2002 report by the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva. Less than one in five AP articles, for instance, mentions that it is possible the communist regime in Beijing has killed Falun Gong practitioners. A 2006 Los Angeles Times editorial referred to the persecution of Falun Gong as “harassment.” Such a portrayal hardly suggests the horrors certainly involved in 3,000 people having been tortured to death.

Why is Falun Gong out of the media spotlight?

If operating under the assumption that media in democratic societies impartially reflect world realities, the easy explanation would be that the Falun Gong issue has gone away—either the Communist Party is no longer persecuting Falun Gong or, on the contrary, it has more or less completely crushed the group. But as the rest of this volume demonstrates, that is not the case (although the latter is a common misconception). More likely, a range of factors and dynamics have created what is often referred to as a media bias.

Critics from Noam Chomsky on the left to L. Brent Bozell III on the right have censured mainstream media over a range of biases. John Patrick Kusumi of the China Support Network, for instance, argues that Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings for years grounded the bias of not seriously discussing human rights in China on U.S. television. Laurell Leff’s Buried by the Times (Cambridge, 2005) even details how America’s top paper obscured one of the twentieth century’s biggest stories—the Holocaust.

Below, then, are a few explanations for Western media’s above patterns and biases in covering Falun Gong.

1. Falun Gong became less visible in China
From 1999-2001, Falun Gong practitioners were prominently visible in the heart of Beijing when they called for help on Tiananmen Square. But when they left Tiananmen, the media spotlight quickly faded out. Gone were the images of men and women sitting cross-legged in meditation and policemen pouncing on them before dragging them away, leaving blood stains on the square’s concrete slabs. Gone, too, were the police troops swarming around Beijing, the show trials, and the burning heaps of Falun Gong books.

Practitioners were now engaged in less conspicuous forms of localized resistance—hanging banners, distributing leaflets, calling prisons. The bloody scenes were behind the high concrete walls of distant labor camps.

Even as protests mounted overseas, as refugees told of large-scale torture, and as Falun Dafa Information Center press releases poured out of their Beijing bureau fax machines, Western editors found Falun Gong to be too far from sight. 

2. Falun Gong became old news
As the data here demonstrates, coverage of Falun Gong has decreased dramatically over time. The killing of adherents, like starvation in Africa, has become old news, and old news does not sell. With the exception of events that could be deemed sensational—like the interception of Chinese television broadcasts or a woman yelling in the middle of Hu Jintao’s speech in Washington—Falun Gong is no longer considered newsworthy.

On MediaChannel.org Beatrice Turpin describes how, when she worked at Associated Press Television News, her superiors were less than supportive of her journalistic inquisitiveness. “There was a lack of will in my office to move the story further,” she says. “I was told to keep in touch with Falun Gong members through my beeper and public phones in case any further ‘spectacular’ events were planned but was strongly discouraged from trying to get interviews or trying to go deeper with the story.”

As a result, even regular media consumers can read their morning papers for years without knowing much at all about the persecution of Falun Gong in China. 

3. Reporting from China is difficult, reporting on human rights in China is harder, and covering Falun Gong has at times been incredibly hard.
Even if journalists wish to closely follow the story and have the blessing of their editors, they still face tremendous obstacles. Labor camps are faraway and impossible to enter with the exception of a rare guided tour. Journalists based in China have stood to lose their work permits and have been physically assaulted for trying to report on Falun Gong.

The BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, one of the more daring Western journalists during his time in China, describes being followed, attacked, and interrogated for trying to cover a Falun Gong demonstration. Foreign reporters were often arrested with Falun Gong practitioners and saw the films ripped out of their photographers’ cameras.

According to the Washington Post’s Edward Cody, a manual published by the Ministry of Public Security in preparation for the Olympics instructed policemen to respond to foreign journalists wishing to cover Falun Gong as follows: “It’s beyond the limit of your coverage and illegal. As a foreign reporter in China, you should obey China [sic] law and do nothing against your status.” “Oh, I see. May I go now?” the hypothetical reporter replies. “No. Come with us.”

While Chinese authorities announced the lifting of restrictions on foreign journalists last December in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, it remains to be proven that the new freedoms also include reporting on Falun Gong.

Conscientious journalists, moreover, are keenly aware that the danger to their informants is even greater. In Wild Grass (Pantheon, 2004), Johnson describes how he had to disguise himself and hop taxis just to meet adherents without getting them arrested.  The counter example is that of Ding Yan, a Falun Gong practitioner who was seized for attending a secret press conference in Beijing and later tortured to death in custody.

4. Assisted self-censorship
Strengthening the image of an increasingly free China, concealing the extent of the ongoing campaign, and pretending Falun Gong has been successfully handled are obvious international public-relations priorities for the Communist Party. It is only natural, therefore, that it will use leverage over foreign press whenever it is able to. With media conglomerates like Time Warner, Disney, and News Corp. vying for footing in the China market, the Party has largely been able to negotiate on its terms (à la Google’s well known affair of self-censoring its Chinese search engine).

The foreign press has been given limited freedom to cover certain previously taboo topics, along with what appears to be a tacit mutual understanding that in-depth coverage of Falun Gong and a handful of other sensitive topics remain off limits. Foreign media know that if they go too far, their magazines will be removed from stands (as was Time after carrying articles by the Dalai Lama and Chinese dissidents), their shows will be taken off the air (as happened to the BBC after it aired an item about Falun Gong), or their websites will be blocked if they are not already.

Self-censorship further extends to the sources journalists rely on. Scholars and officials figure prominently as sources in Western media coverage. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, not a single academic or bureaucrat in China has been willing to go on record opposing the CCP’s Falun Gong policy as of July 2007. The risks are simply too high, and so the very courageous ones do so anonymously. Finding prominent individuals willing to speak in support of the Party’s campaign, of course, has never been a problem.

In fact, there are few Western scholars of China who have gone on record expressing strong critique of the campaign. Most China scholars remain deeply concerned with maintaining their access to the mainland, and some have expressed to me in private their mixed feelings about needing to self-censor their work, an issue Perry Link discusses with specifics about Falun Gong in his illuminating article, “China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier” (NY Review of Books, 2002).  

5. Combine effective propaganda saturation with “compassion fatigue” and the result is the idea that Falun Gong practitioners are “unworthy victims.”
While few critically minded journalists would accept the Party’s Falun Gong blood libels at face value (Human Rights Watch calls them “bogus”), the propaganda blitz did create an environment that, when combined with the unfamiliarity of the new group, led to many observers not knowing who or what to believe. As a result, derogatory terms used to describe Falun Gong and its founder—all of which can invariably be traced back to CCP rhetoric—have crept into Western media reports.

Moreover, all the negativity aimed at Falun Gong has accelerated the process known as “compassion fatigue.” The example of the Tiananmen “self-immolation” incident in 2001 is most telling. Danny Schechter and others believe the event was highly manipulated, if not outright staged, by the CCP. Still, the propaganda succeeded in generating much negativity, or at least doubts, about Falun Gong. Why would reporters risk their careers in China to cover a group they considered controversial? Falun Gong practitioners were now seen as “unworthy victims.” It is no coincidence that coverage of Falun Gong began tapering off dramatically in the incident’s aftermath, even as the rate of killing in custody was accelerating.

These patterns continue and may have become even more accentuated recently: In the first half of this year, the sampled seven of the most prominent newspapers in the English-speaking world produced a total of two articles that had more than a passing mention of Falun Gong. One final question might then be asked: Could there possibly be a causal relationship between media’s decreased coverage of abuses and the increase in persecution? 

Leeshai Lemish researches Chinese politics, human rights, and Western media in China, and has a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

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