As British police continue to investigate the case of the 39 bodies found last week in a lorry in Essex, many are questioning some media outlets' early speculation on the nationalities of the victims. Updates are necessary with new developments; corrections are a must with new findings. But something fundamentally wrong with journalism can never be excused. Whatever you say in your reports – be it news or views – has to start with confirmed facts.
The Essex police did say last Thursday that all the victims were "believed to be Chinese nationals." But they quickly retracted that statement – and have repeatedly warned against speculation.
I admit speculation is quite inevitable. As I speak, there is a great variety of claims on this matter, on the Chinese social media as well. It's been a lesson for many in the journalistic profession: how to be timely and responsible at once. I guess this will always be a challenge in the era of 24-hour news. But in the Essex case, I discerned an extraordinary amount of conscious sloppiness, to say the least, in the international media.
In one British TV report, a seasoned reporter said that police had not confirmed the deceased were Chinese – he just heard that from other sources. But it didn't prevent him from recalling a past case involving Chinese nationals. In another report, a journalist first acknowledged it would take time to identify the victims, but then shared his interview with a Chinese-British man who explained how human-trafficking networks operate in China. On another channel, a senior host reminded viewers that it's not confirmed the victims were Chinese. But she said, "Let's just assume they were"! She even asked her guest to comment on how Chinese state oppression might deter affected families from coming forth.
What's behind the collective failure of these media to meet minimal professional standards?
In my eyes, a CNN journalist in Beijing shed some light on the psyche behind this phenomenon. October 25, as Essex police were warning against speculation, the correspondent asked the spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs what would motivate people from China to want to leave in such a risky way after the many achievements, advances and great progress of the past 70 years. The spokesperson responded that his question was inappropriate as facts were still missing.
Nevertheless, CNN had prepared a lengthy report to answer that very question. The article examined why the Chinese risk their lives to enter the UK, although acknowledging the victims were only believed to be Chinese. The journalist cited unverifiable numbers to denote China's "huge" migration trend and pointed to a widening wealth gap as an important reason. Regardless of her truthfulness, she jumped the gun.
Such stories have drawn natural criticism among the Chinese public. I understand many in the foreign media want to dive deep into Chinese society and bring to light what they believe is dark but true. But don't jump too fast, too soon. Your professional credibility is at stake.
As police continue to establish the facts, let's all pause for a moment to think about the souls who perished in this tragedy. They deserve respect.
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