The Google/China hacking case: How did the story flow through Chinese-language media?

By Jinzhi DongMarch 15  /  noon  

HONG KONG — A few weeks ago, Jonathan Stray looked at how news is reported and repeated in the new news ecosystem by tracking a single international story — the revelation that last year’s hacking of Google and other companies had been traced to two schools in China. His finding: 121 distinct versions of the story, but only 13 of which included any original reporting.

But Stray’s analysis only looked at English-language media. I wanted to compare his findings with how their Chinese news ecosystem reported the story. So I applied the same research methods to the Chinese-language reporting of this story; I went through every version of the story listed on the China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan editions of Google News to quantitatively examine the coverage on the Chinese-language Internet.

Here’s what I found: Although the total number of versions of the story in Chinese (151) was similar to the number of versions in English (121), the Chinese web pages were almost entirely verbatim reposts of only six pieces of copy, of which four included original reporting.

When Chinese news organizations follow an important and sensitive event, their coverage reflects state media policies. The coverage of the so-called “hacker-training schools” in China offers several clues as to how the Chinese media system, not known for its press freedom, actually works. Independent web sites are not allowed to gather news, and the vast majority didn’t. It’s also much safer to repeat official reports than write original copy when covering politically sensitive topics — and this was certainly a sensitive story for the Chinese government, which has been not-quite-accused by Google of state-sponsored hacking.

There were 151 items on the topic in the Google News story cluster when I gathered them. I went through each, tracking the original source of the copy and the source of the information, among other things, and gathered the results in an spreadsheet. These are the major findings:

There were only six distinct written stories. Four newspapers, a website, and a wire service offered distinct versions of the story of tracing Google’s recent attackers to two schools in China. These media were, in the order that Google News ranked them, Elite Reference (Beijing), China Times (Beijing), China News Service (nationwide), Dazhong Web (Shandong), Qilu Evening News (Shandong), and Information Times (Guangzhou). These six stories were widely reposted by both commercial websites and local newspaper websites. The story from the China News Service was reposted 68 times, while the least repeated story was reposted seven times.

Four of these six stories were based on significant original reporting: China Times, China News Service, Dazhong Web, and Qilu Evening News. The other two stories (from Elite reference and Information Times) rearranged the facts from other media, adding a few comments from news conferences or netizens.

Out of the 151 web pages, 76 (50 percent) were the online outlets of traditional media. Among them, 56 (37 percent) were primarily newspapers, while the others are the websites of TV or radio stations. Private companies or individuals are not permitted to run a newspaper or broadcasting station independent of government oversight in China, so these figures mean that half of the websites following the Google hacking news are effectively state-run media.

Xinhua, the primary state-run Chinese news agency, did not contribute any stories in Chinese, but offered a report in English.

Essentially every web site that was not affiliated with a news agency reposted one of the six stories verbatim. This differed from the practice of English-language web sites, which mostly rewrote the story (without additional reporting). Depending on how you look at it, this is either blatant plagiarism — or extremely efficient.

Again, this is the result of state policy. In China, independent websites are not allowed to conduct interviews or do original reporting. “By maintaining the strictest control over the right to issue, review and revoke press accreditation, the government can exercise control over the media — and potentially over individuals who dare to practice ‘journalism’ outside the system,” according to Qian Gang and David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. Authorized news sites are fed by licensed traditional media. For all other sites, reposting the official stories protects them politically, both from violations of reporting restrictions and from off-message coverage of sensitive topics.

One website, Huameiwang, wrote a summarized story with hyperlinks to relevant articles reposted on its own domain. Due to the journalistic restrictions in force, this form of aggregation is common for online news organizations when covering important news events.

Linking to sources was rare on the Chinese internet. Overall, 118 websites (81 percent of the 145 total reposts) did not link back to the source of their text, and 15 sites did not mention any source at all.

The four pieces offered by the Hong Kong edition of Google News were reposted or rewritten from mainland media and the NYT, as were the stories in the Taiwan edition. For whatever reason, the Chinese-language media in these much less restricted regions did not do original reporting on this story.

Google News missed at least one original story, from the Chinese version of Global Times. There were also different versions of the copy that were not listed, including some less-known local media and bloggers, such as the Xiaoxiang Morning Post in Hunan province.

To summarize: newspapers still played a dominant role in reporting this story, and websites reposted newspaper content repeatedly both for economic and political considerations. Chinese websites rarely did independent reporting, because it isn’t necessary for the online outlets of existing news agencies, and isn’t allowed for all other sites.

The distinct versions of the story are listed in the following table. More information on each of the 151 items (whether or not linked to source, country of publication, primary medium, etc.) is available in the full spreadsheet.

Outlet Sources Dateline Times Reposted
Elite Reference NYT, AFP, Xinhua 13
China Times Original, NYT Beijing 29
China News Service Original, NYT Jinan 68
Dazhong Web Original Jinan 7
Qilu Evening News Original 10
Information Times Shanghai Evening Post, Shanghai Morning Post, Qilu Evening News 11


Thanks to Jonathan Stray and Yuen-Ying Chan for their contributions.