How New Media Contribute to Citizen Journalism in China

How New Media Contribute to Citizen Journalism in China
Photo Credit: Tony WebsterCC by SA 4.0

What you need to know

It’s a constant tug of war, but social media provide a tool for society to bypass state censors and shed light on important social issues.

The development of new technology in China has brought changes in the country’s social, political and commercial sectors. By analyzing data on Internet usage and trends in social media and forums, we can also determine how it has contributed to citizen journalism. Netizens who engage in social media can challenge social norms and encourage monitoring of the government on a variety of issues.

Internet usage patterns in China

Statistics provided by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) and surveys of Internet usage and impact in Chinese cities by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences show that China has the largest number of Internet users in the world. With nearly 49 percent of the total population using the Internet, China surpassed the U.S. in 2008.

Although netizens tend to be younger, compared to eight years ago the number of users over the age of 30 has risen. In terms of income and education structure, usage growth has followed a similar pattern, with more and more people from lower income brackets and education levels becoming Internet users. As the percentage continues to rise among people with education levels below junior high school and in lower income groups, the Internet is becoming more accessible to the poorer and less educated public.

As to social media, the number of users has reached 504 million: 90 percent of Internet users, and 48 percent of the total population, were actively using social media in 2015. A total of 87 percent of social media users used mobile phones as their main platform. As for netizens’ attitude, favorable perceptions of the reliability of Internet content have increased to around 56 percent. Therefore, active participation in social media and other video- or photo-sharing forums has become a vital aspect of Chinese society, and the growing accessibility has also changed the Internet landscape and provided the means to criticize and monitor the government.

Citizen journalism in social media

Citizen journalism occurs when ordinary citizens take up an active role to collect and report information and news (Bowman & Willis, 2003). It is a self-empowerment process that focuses on individuals and community building. To further explore this phenomenon, I will use the case of the Wenzhou train crash, where social media played an important role.

On July 23, 2011, two high-speed trains collided and caused several casualties. Before the news was released by the state-run Xinhua news agency, citizen journalists and photographers had already shared photos and news on Weibo, which recorded more than 2 million related posts within a month. Eyewitnesses also provided evidence to criticize and monitor the government’s reaction to the incident, and the public were further mobilized by social media to provide immediate assistance to the victims.

Social media have become essential in citizen journalism for two factors:

First, micro-blogging serves as a tool to quickly respond to a crisis (Yan, 2011). In the Wenzhou train crash, the first citizen reporting (on Weibo) occurred 13 minutes after the collision, and within 10 hours it had been reposted more than 100,000 times. Timeliness is key to news reporting, and it has crossed social and spatial boundaries. Compared to traditional media such as Xinhua, coverage on social media has a much more personal flavor, thanks to photos, videos, and heart-breaking stories that appeal to social media users.

Second, social media provides an important platform for community building. In the train crash, Weibo helped mobilize the public for volunteer work in Wenzhou. Thousands of volunteers turned up for blood donations within hours of the accident, and Weibo was the principal platform for locating missing family members. Moreover, netizens questioned the government’s industrial development strategy and whether it put public safety at risk (Yan, 2011). Social media gathered opinions from different communities and channeled calls for change.

Citizen journalism on social media also faces opportunities and challenges. Bei (2013) examines the growing trend in micro-blogging use for investigative reporting, and concludes that social media have prompted the public to challenge social norms and regulations. For instance, Weibo combines multiple functions such as commenting, posting texts, videos or photos, and journalists use it as a way to attract viewers and intensify certain news. By appealing to the public, it becomes a tool to highlight various issues affecting society.

But the biggest challenge — and opportunity — of citizen journalism is bypassing censorship.

Bypassing censorship

When certain news is published and journalists are banned from their publications, social media offer an alternative in news reporting and a way to complete banned articles. Although social media operators and authorities can still censor news by deleting posts and closing down accounts when they violate certain rules or contain “unfavorable news” such as reporting on the widening gap between officials and the public, relevant news can nevertheless have a snowball effect on social media.

For instance, in 2010 the “My dad is Li Gang” case, in which a drunk driver shouted at the police and claimed that his father was the deputy police chief, spread over social media overnight and reflected the deeply rooted conflict between ruling elites and the public. The criticism eventually forced the government propaganda department to establish new regulations.

Although bypassing censorship is a constant tug of war, the deeply rooted problems in society cannot always be hidden, and when instances of inequality or injustice occur, they foster discussion in social media and empower whistleblowers who provide evidence of corruption and misconduct.

Bei, J. (2013). "How Chinese journalists use Weibo microblogging for investigative reporting." Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper, University of Oxford.

China Internet Network Information Center (2016) Statistical Report on Internet Development in China. China Internet Network Information Center

Guo, L. (2007) "Surveying Internet Usage and its Impact in Seven Chinese Cities." Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Yan, W. (2011) Micro-blogging as a Rapid Response: News Service in Crisis Reporting. Swansea University.

First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Edward White