Archive for the ‘media’ Category

nyt publishes long article on beijing’s air pollution, but makes mistake in second paragraph

Sunday, January 29th, 2012


Update 1/31/12: The story online has been corrected with a correction issued. Kudos to the NYT for ensuring even a minor mistake like this gets fixed.

Two days ago, the New York Times published a good article summarizing much of the current debate and recent progress regarding air pollution monitoring and reporting in Beijing.

Unfortunately, there is an error in the fourth sentence of the article:

Officials have claimed for years that the air quality in fast-growing China is constantly improving. Beijing, for example, was said to have experienced a record 274 “blue sky” days in 2011, a statistic belied by the heavy smog smothering the city for much of the year.

There are actually two errors here. First, Beijing reported 286 Blue Sky Days in 2011. 274 was simply their target for the year, which they achieved early and then exceeded. This is even stated clearly in the Xinhua article linked to directly from the NYT story. Second, even if Beijing had achieved 274 Blue Sky Days, this would not have been a record; the number of Blue Sky Days was above 274 in both 2009 and 2010.

The mistake doesn’t really impact the overall context or conclusions of the story, so from that perspective I suppose it can be considered minor. However, in my experience the Chinese are very quick to highlight small mistakes in Western media reports, and on this basis discredit entire articles (or even entire news sources). I worry that small mistakes like this undermine the impact of otherwise good reporting by Western journalists here.

I’m also just surprised something so basic got past the NYT’s fact checkers.

xinhua english reports on beijing’s pollution, using usa terminology

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

As I was writing my post yesterday, Xinhua English published a short piece on this week’s heavy pollution episode in Beijing:

BEIJING – Heavy fog with a visibility of around 1 km persisted in Beijing for a third day Wednesday, keeping the city’s air pollution at the most hazardous levels measured this year.

The municipal environment bureau’s readings indicated the heaviest air pollution on Wednesday was monitored in Daxing district in southern Beijing, where the air quality index (AQI) reading hit 362.

The AQI ranges from 0 to 500: the higher the number, the more severe the pollution. Readings over 300 are considered hazardous.

The average AQI reading for the city Wednesday was 207, down from 270 on Tuesday and 333 on Monday.

The highest AQI reading over the last three days – at 394 – was recorded in the eastern Chaoyang and northern Haidian districts on Tuesday.

The Beijing Meteorological Bureau said a weak cold front would hit the city on late Wednesday to dispel haze. Winds, however, were unlikely to completely clear the air pollution on Thursday.

The article seems fairly straightforward, though there is one very surprising detail: the terminology they are using to describe the air pollution is the United States’ terminology, not China’s. Two differences:

1) China’s own index is called the Air Pollution Index (API), not the Air Quality Index (AQI), which is what is used in the US.

2) China’s system does not use the word “hazardous” to describe index levels above 300. “Hazardous” above 300 is the US’ terminology. China’s system simply calls this “heavy pollution” (重污染), without a value judgment of the danger. (“Hazardous” might be better translated as 危险 or 有害.)

Does this shift signal the impact of the US’ Embassy’s BeijingAir Twitter feed on guiding air quality discussion, at least among the English-speaking population in Beijing, or am I reading too much into it? (I asked similar questions in two posts in 2009 when the English-language China Daily openly questioned China’s system in light of the Embassy’s data.)

Regardless, Chinese language sources appear to be uniformly using the Chinese terminology. This Xinhua article in Chinese even includes a glossary, though it carefully avoids any judgments like “hazardous,” preferring the less direct “heavy pollution” (重度污染). The article does note, though, for index levels above 300, “elderly people and those with heart or lung diseases should remain indoors and reduce physical activity…and…the general population should avoid outdoor activity.” (老年人和心脏病、肺病患者应停留在室内,并减少体力活动…一般人群应避免户外活动。)

note to la times: this is not what beijing looks like

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

The LA Times reported yesterday on a new study suggesting that cancer risks for people living in Beijing would be halved if the air quality were consistently as good as it was during the Olympic Games. (This result, while noteworthy, is not that surprising given the fact that air pollution levels were half of what they normally are during that time period.)

Check out the shocking lead photo:

la times feb 8
The caption reads, “This photo, taken in Beijing a few years before the 2008 Olympics, shows bicyclists passing a factory emitting smoke into the air.” The choice of this photo really bothers me, for several reasons. The biggest reason is because this isn’t what Beijing looks like. I might believe that this was taken in Beijing’s rural suburbs, but to imply that average life in Beijing is something like that in this picture is truly manipulative and biased. I presume it is a stock photo chosen by some editor who has never been to China and simply wants a “shock” image that plays right into the idea that China’s environmental crisis is straight out of a Dickens novel. Secondly, this picture is not only from a few years ago, it’s clearly from the summer (the bicyclists are wearing T-shirts), making it doubly inappropriate for printing now. Third, the photo blatantly contradicts the fact that Beijing just completed its cleanest month in a decade, something the LA Times could not be bothered to cover, or even mention in this article.

For a stark comparison, this is the photo the Guardian ran last week in its story about Beijing’s air quality:

guardian feb 2

Hmm. I just discovered that the photo chosen by the LA Times just happens to be the first photo result in a Google Images search for “Beijing Pollution.” Surely the explanation isn’t that simple?

beijing pollution images

new york times on beijing’s air quality

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

About two weeks ago, the New York Times published an excellent article on Beijing’s air quality. I feel honored that the online version of the article links to this blog, but that’s not the only reason I think it’s a great piece. The title of the article, “Beijing’s Air Is Cleaner, but Far From Clean,” is itself a succinct and accurate portrayal of the current state of the air here, and is a strong prelude to the article’s comprehensive, balanced view of both the successes and challenges faced by Beijing.

The article’s author, Michael Wines, portrays Beijing’s air quality situation from four different angles / contexts, all of which I think are important and valid for anyone wishing to understand the complexity of the air pollution issue. Here, I will describe and expand upon these four contexts.

1) Both the Beijing government and local researchers assert that air quality has steadily improved over the past decade. In other words, we’re making progress:

Through September, the government counted 221 days in which the 0-to-500 pollution index — the lower the number, the better — was below 101. It was the greatest number of “blue-sky days,” as the city calls them, since daily measurements were first published in 1998.

At the same time, the city has recorded only 2 days with dangerously high air pollution. That is the lowest number in a decade, and fully 17 days fewer than were logged in the same period in 2000.

“For those of us who have been monitoring air pollutants for about 10 years, we see a clear reduction in pollution,” Zhu Tong, a professor and air pollution scientist at Peking University’s College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, said in an interview.

2) Valid concerns exist over the accuracy and validity of the government data. In other words, be careful not to base all of your analysis on official statistics:

Outside experts caution that the city’s measurements are not just imprecise — they do not measure the tiniest particulates that are most damaging to lungs, for instance — but potentially misleading.

3) Although it appears that we are making progress, even the government’s official numbers show current air quality that is objectively still quite poor. In other words, we have a lot of work left to do:

And Beijing’s air remains far from pristine by any measure. The average concentration of particulates in city air during 2008, for example, was six times the ideal standard recommended by the World Health Organization. Indeed, Beijing has yet to meet the W.H.O.’s interim air standards for developing countries — or even the less stringent standards posted by China’s national government.

(Data supporting both of these claims may be found in these two posts from this blog: comparing international standards and summary of Beijing’s 2008 air quality.)

4) The improvements so far have been the result of impressive, massive, widespread programs and policies targeting air quality improvement; indeed such programs have been required for the government to have any chance in winning the “race” against the booming growth. In other words, although the government should be doing more, we recognize and applaud what they are already doing:

In the past decade, in fact, authorities have moved against air pollution problems with a tenacity that some environmentalists in developed nations, pitted against industry lobbyists and balky political machinery, can only envy.

The piece concludes by describing many such programs, including strict emission standards, fuel quality standards, introduction of alternative fuel buses, elimination of coal-fired burners, and more.

Rarely have I seen an article which succeeds at presenting all four perspectives. My general sense is that the Western media tends to focus largely on (2) and (3) (the data is suspect, air quality is still poor), whereas the Chinese media highlights (1) and (4) (we’re making progress, we have many successful programs in place). And yet, honest and comprehensive dialogue on solutions to Beijing’s air quality problem requires considering all four angles.

Lastly, my only objection to the article is the comparison of China’s scrappage program for high-emitting vehicles with the US’ Cash for Clunkers program. This is a little misleading, because the US program targets fuel economy while China’s program targets air pollutant emissions, but this is a subject for another post.

Disclosure: The author, Michael Wines, interviewed me for background information before writing the article.

CNN on climate change – the good and the bad

Thursday, January 29th, 2009



cnn 1 29 international

This morning, I was impressed to discover CNN.com leading with a story about Al Gore’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Gore spoke about the imperative for the United States to negotiate and agree this year to an international treaty to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

I was also encouraged by the tone in these two paragraphs in the article:

During the hearing, Republican staffers handed out a statement contending that there are “significant objections” to claims about climate change. The document, which did not name Gore, said there is “a continued international outpouring of skeptical scientists” along with research “to refute warming fears.”

The idea that the world’s climate is being changed by human activities is supported by studies accepted by the vast majority of scientists with expertise in the field. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are among groups that have issued reports backing that position.

I am encouraged here for a couple of reasons. First, the article does not hedge on whether or not climate change is being caused by humans. The second paragraph here is simply strong, direct, factual journalism, which is desperately needed to bring US public opinion on climate change more closely in line with reality.

Second, although the article does describe the actions of the climate skeptics, the claims of those skeptics are presented as claims alone (with quotation marks), not as truths. To me, this is journalistically a step in the right direction. By following the Republicans’ “claim” of an “outpouring of skeptical scientists” with a real list of real scientific organizations, the article essentially discredits the claim. (To be fair, a perfect article would have discredited the claim directly, but nonetheless progress is still progress.)

That having been said, though, CNN doesn’t deserve all praise today. It is a daily habit of mine to read the CNN International home page followed by the CNN US page. I do this for a variety of reasons, but primarily I am curious about the differing emphasis and priority assigned to different news stories for the two markets.

And sure enough, my elation over a cover story on climate change was immediately quashed when I discovered that the US edition of CNN did not even feature the story at all on the home page:

cnn 1 29 us

What’s going on here? Gore testifying in front of the Senate on climate change is important enough to make the cover of the international page, but on the US page is usurped by such hard-hitting headlines as “Vegetable ad deemed too hot for TV”?

And so the long struggle to change US public opinion on climate change goes on…

china reacts to US resolution on human rights

Friday, August 1st, 2008

Two days ago, the US House passed a broad resolution urging China “to immediately end abuses of the human rights of its citizens, to cease repression of Tibetan and Uighur people, and to end its support for the Governments of Sudan and Burma.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this action by the House was reported in the Chinese media. But I think there is a lot to be learned from examining exactly how it was reported. I’ll reference this China Daily article as a typical case.

First of all, to understand how the Chinese media reported this event, we have to ignore the actual content of the resolution, because, as one would expect, the content itself was never discussed. What was discussed in the Chinese media, however, was the basic fact that the House said something negative about China in advance of the Olympics.

Some key sentences of the China Daily article that stood out to me:

“The passing of the resolution at this time has fully exposed the attempt of the very few anti-China US lawmakers to politicize the Olympics and their evil intention to disrupt and sabotage the Beijing Olympic Games,” said the official.

“Such a deed has violated the Olympic spirit and aim, and also violated the common wish of the world people, including the US people,” said the official.

Magically, the resolution now has nothing to do with human rights, and everything to do with “evil” attempts to “sabotage” the peaceful and harmonious Olympics. Who would dare do such a thing? And not only that, these views (supposedly) aren’t even shared by the American people!

There are at least two tactics here that probably could be taught in PR classes.

First, the content of the resolution is discredited as being from a fringe group of China-haters who do not represent the majority opinion. (The article conveniently fails to mention that the resolution passed 419-1.) Therefore, the content isn’t even worth spending time reviewing.

Second, the dialogue in China has been successfully deflected away from China’s human rights record and onto the supposedly unfounded, unfaltering, unfair criticism so often levied by foreigners on China. This, of course, ultimately bolsters nationalism with an “us vs. them” attitude.

Similar tactics were employed by the Chinese media during the Tibet uprising in March of this year, especially with regard to CNN’s biased reporting:

Chinese netizens, including students studying overseas, have been angered by biased and sometimes dishonest reports about the recent riots in Tibet by some Western media.

Another article described a “wave of anger and patriotism generated by CNN’s recent offensive coverage of China.”

Again, the two-fold tactic is to discredit the source and then use supposed foreign bias to fuel nationalism.

I may be getting too far off course here by linking the House resolution to foreign media coverage of China, but I think a common and important theme is that statements and reports by foreigners often have unexpected and/or undesired impacts within China. With regard to the House resolution specifically, I think Americans need to be very clear that actions like this a) have a completely different tone within China than they do outside of these borders; b) probably affect little or no actual change; and c) may ultimately have precisely the wrong impact if they only serve to hinder future trust and communication.