Monday, July 6, 2009

Urumqi update – death toll and media reporting

Yesterday (and throughout the day today) I posted about the unrest in Urumqi, the capital of the Uyghur region of China known as Xinjiang. Since then I've been very interested in the death toll, and the Western media's reporting of it. The Chinese state media continues to claim that over 100 have been killed (156 is the latest figure), although it hasn't specified how many of those were rioters, how many were the victims of rioters, and how many were police. The NYT article says that an American living in Urumqi saw the violence but saw no signs of deaths, and it does seem a bit odd that a protest involving only about 1000 protesters would result in over 100 deaths.

Despite these incongruities, the Western media has generally reported the figure without much qualification, and it figures prominently in headlines and subheads about the event. The Times article does a passable job, reporting the number along with its source (the Chinese government), but doesn't directly address the fact that there isn't much evidence that that many people actually died, and doesn't really discuss who died. The Guardian is completely uncritical, and reports the number as straight fact without even mentioning the source, nevermind that the source has obvious prejudices. The BBC is a little better, reporting the figure uncritically but at least mentioning that it's unclear who died.

The Christian Science Monitor gets the award for most candid coverage, admitting the difficulty in reporting facts right in the headline: "Sources in Urumqi? They’re (very) hard to come by." They also accurately portray the difficulty in teasing out who were the victims and who were the aggressors:

The key question is: Who died? Muslim Uighur demonstrators, cut down by the police, as Uighur exile groups claim? Or innocent Han Chinese bystanders, butchered by a mob of Uighurs, as the government-owned media are making out?

I should mention that the Christian Science Monitor ceased publication of its print edition a couple of months ago, and is now a web-only publication (with the exception of a weekend magazine, I believe). Just keep that in mind when someone tries to tell you that the death of the printed newspaper will spell the end of foreign reporting.

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