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Ideologies of crime coverage in Chinese online media:
A Case study of Chinese commercial portals' news content and interactivity
Li Xiao, PhD student, The University of Iowa
Judy Polumbaum, Professor, The University of Iowa
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
W 615 Seashore Hall, Iowa City, IA 52242
Submitted to the 2004 AEJMC Convention
International Communication Division
Ideologies of crime coverage in Chinese online media:
A Case study of Chinese commercial portals' news content and interactivity
Analyzing news stories, commentaries, and readers' discussions of a
sensational serial murder case on China's two most popular commercial
online portals, this study examines how the Internet's medium-specific
characteristics of unlimited space and interactivity facilitate both
reinforcement and challenges to dominant ideologies of crime
coverage. Textual analysis yields four themes in the news coverage and
three themes in readers' discussions suggesting that both process are
Ever since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949,
information control has been central to the Communist Party's governing
strategy. In the effort to create and maintain a "symbolic environment"
supporting its political legitimacy, the ruling Party has directed
traditional media, from newspapers and magazines to television and radio,
to serve as official mouthpieces (Chang & Tai, 2003). Even in the post-Mao
era, as overt state involvement in many spheres has lessened, this explicit
propaganda role for mass media persists (Wu, 2000). But after more than 20
years of economic reform and development of a market economy, commercial
pressure has become a primary influence on mass media as well, diluting and
sometimes contradicting the exigencies of politics; and media content and
production in all formats, including conventional and new technologies,
have become more market-driven and diversified (Liu, 1998; Zhao,
1998). Since the late 1990s, the expansion of computer-mediated
communications has accelerated this process and injected new features into
the mix. In particular, emerging Internet-based commercial portals are
helping to accelerate the transformation of China's media landscape as
online media become viewed as a complement to traditional forms (Xiao,
2003; Xu, 2003; Liu, 2002).
By the end of 2002, China had about 6,000 online media outlets, including
both online versions of traditional print and broadcast outlets and
unofficial, entrepreneurial commercial portals (Liu, 2002). But within
this landscape, the influence of commercial portals quickly gained over
conventional state-run online media, beginning to reverse a longtime
balance of power in which official media predominated. Over the past few
years, commercial portals have become major sources of information for
online users in China—a constituency that is primarily urbanites,
intellectuals and younger people, but growing increasingly widespread and
diverse (Xu, 2003). China's enormous population and potential of course
make even small proportions significant: The large absolute numbers of
Chinese internet users and the level of activity on China's cyberspace
offerings are evident in a report of worldwide traffic on global web sites
that ranked three of the most popular Chinese online portals, www.sina.com,
www.163.com, and www.sohu.com, 10th, 11th and 12th respectively (Xu, 2003).
As Internet-based online media, China's commercial portals have some
important features characteristic of the medium generally, notably a
literally unlimited news hole and potential for interactivity. At the same
time, other important factors distinguish these privately owned operations
from their state-run counterparts. In particular, rather than being under
direct government control, which is exercised in many explicit as well as
implicit ways (He, 2000; Pan, 2000), commercial portals are subject to
government supervision at a remove, through specific online media
regulations (Xu, 2003; Hachigian, 2001; Harwit & Clark, 2001).
The main impact of these regulations, which among other things dissuade
commercial portals from disseminating certain types and categories of
content, may be seen in the general tenor of news selected for these
portals. They tend to avoid sensitive political topics, while emphasizing
stories related to crime, entertainment, sports, and society gossip, the
obvious objective being to attract readers' attention, increase page views
and make profit through the consequent appeal to advertisers. Crime
stories, the category of main interest here, are especially prominent in
the Chinese commercial portals (Xin, 2002).
Much scholarship on crime news (primarily in U.S. and other Western
contexts) revolves around the argument that such coverage reflects and
reinforces prevailing ideology. Some researchers working in this dominant
ideology vein argue that crime accounts, even those in sensational tabloid
forms, function as agencies of social control, reproducing a law-and-order
ideology and serving to uphold the status quo (Zhao, 2003; Cohen & Young,
1973; Surette, 1998; Humphries, 1981; Barlow, Barlow & Chiricos, 1995).
In contrast, Ericson, Baranek and Chan (1991), in their examination of
crime, law and justice stories in newspapers and on radio and television,
suggest serious shortcomings in the dominant ideology thesis. They argue
that differences among different forms of media may provide space for
contending ideologies, and their results demonstrate that ideologies of
crime vary by the distinctive features of each medium.
Building on these findings, this study explores crime news in the two most
popular Chinese online commercial portals with particular attention to how
features of the medium may shape ideologies of crime coverage. A case
study, it examines both news stories and readers' online discussions
revolving around the capture and trial of a serial killer.
Online media and commercial portals in China
When the Internet was first introduced to China in the early 1990s, it was
mainly seen as a promising information technology for the development of
the economy and education. The government was rather reluctant to apply
the Internet to mass media, understandably fearful that facilitation of
free flow and exchange of information would undermine government authority
(Boas & Kalathil, 2001; Cartledge & Lovelock, 1999; Dai, 2002; Hachigian,
In 1993, the Hangzhou Daily launched the first online edition of a Chinese
newspaper (Xiao, 2003). In 1997, the People's Daily, the flagship
newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, launched its online edition, as
did Xinhua News Agency, the state news agency of China (Xu, 2003). Such
online versions of traditional media unquestionably remain an important
part of the emerging online landscape in China. But in the early stages,
these offshoots of official media were rather primitive both in content and
format. The news stories were almost the same as their traditional
counterparts, and the interactive features were hardly applied (Liu, 2002;
Min, 2004). And while these state-sponsored web publications have become
increasingly complex, commercial portals from the start were flashier and
The year 1996 saw the establishment of www.sina.com and www.sohu.com,
which quickly grew into the two most popular commercial portals in
China. From the outset, Sina.com, the largest, made news a prominent part
of its content, and quickly built up its reputation as the No.1 online news
provider in China (Online Media, 2004). Sohu.com, the second largest,
initially concentrated on the development of search engines. By the end of
the 1990s, however, Sohu.com had shifted its emphasis to more news
distribution, and began to compete with Sina.com in this area (Online
Even in the early stages, commercial portals distinguished their news
presentation by making use of the Internet's two most obvious news
features: room for information, and opportunities for interactivity. Some
sites even used the term "oceans" to imply offerings of virtual seas of
news. The commercial operations made numerous innovations in organization
of large amounts of news content, creating special sections for expanded
coverage of certain events deemed of high reader interest, with news
stories as well as background and related information (Liu, 2002; Min,
2004). These portals also set up online discussion forums and encouraged
readers to communicate and express themselves on various news
topics. Dramatic episodes in world news like the September 11th attacks of
2001, and international episodes involving China, such as the bombing of
the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by a U.S./NATO plane in the spring of 1999
and the collision of a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the
South China Sea in the spring of 2001, triggered thousands of readers'
messages online (Li, Xuan, & Kluver, 2003; Xin, 2002; Xu, 2003).
However, Chinese commercial portals certainly are not entirely free to do
whatever they wish. The government may not own them, but has issued
variety of regulations aimed at constraining their activities and
content. An important aspect of government control pertains to latitude
for actual origination of news. In November 2000, China's Ministry of
Information Industry and the Information Office of the State Council
jointly released new regulations on the management of online news media
specifying that commercial portals don't have rights to conduct original
news-gathering. Thus, these commercial operations can only carry news from
officially approved domestic news organizations. This has led to the news
service of commercial portals being called the "cut-and-paste
industry." Primarily they reprint or relay news items from national and
local newspapers, other publications or broadcast outlets, and these
conventional organizations' online editions (Xu, 2003; Hachigian, 2001;
Harwit, 2001; Min, 2004).
Despite the restrictions on newsgathering, however, commercial portals
have managed to acquire disproportionate recognition for news. Liu (2002)
speculates that their popularity stems from skills of compiling and
packaging news stories, which for purposes of attracting eyeballs has
become more important than the exclusive reporting of news. The commercial
portals continue to take full advantage of the unlimited news hole of the
Internet, distributing large quantities and varieties of information. In
contrast, an online version of traditional media such as Xinhua News Agency
may carry only the latest events without background information or other
related features. Only as the quantity advantage of news in commercial
portals has gained popularity among readers have the online versions of
traditional media belatedly begun to follow suit and tried to provide
somewhat more, but they still lag behind the commercial outlets.
More recently, commercial portals such as Sina.com and Sohu.com have been
trying to build beyond quantity advantage to add quality and depth, in part
by inviting business leaders and scholars of society and media to write
columns and opinions for their news sites, which unlike original news
gathering is permissible. The CEO of Sohu.com, Zhang Chaoyang, has
identified social responsibility, media credibility and human concern as
priorities of news, and said that in-depth explanation and commentary
should be as important as the hard facts of news events (Online media,
2004; Xu, 2004; Yang & Zhou, 2004). The commercial portals also continue
to make heightened use of the interactivity features of the Internet,
especially with online forums for discussion of hot topics. Many official
news organizations have added these to web versions as well, the People's
Daily forum being probably the most popular among those; but again, the
commercial sites have a good head start.
Much of the study of China's Internet focuses not on domestic portals and
their operation and use, but on access to foreign-based sites, and results
tend to emphasize the intermittent government blocking of Western portals
and online media and identify China's Internet as among the most controlled
in the world (Zittrain & Edelman, 2002). But useful scholarship on
domestic online media also is emerging, with some attention to readers'
forums. Scholarly analyses of the cultural and political implications of
such forums in a country like China—where policies, structures and
traditions circumscribe the latitude for public discussion on certain
subjects even in the midst of rapid social and economic change—are
mixed. Most analyses recognize that technological developments have become
crucial in propelling change in China's media system, and that tensions
between freedom and control are especially pronounced and even volatile in
the case of the Internet (Chan, 2003; Donald & Keane, 2002; Keane & Donald,
2002; Lynch, 1999).
Some researchers (Li, Xuan & Kluver, 2003; McCormick & Liu, 2003) contend
that online discussion forums are opening up new spaces for Chinese readers
to communicate and exchange information freely and anonymously, and
therefore pose a significant threat to the hegemonic control of the
government by revising and reconstructing agendas set by Chinese
authorities and official media. This view is proposed in U.S. media
accounts of the role of the Internet in China as well (e.g., Eckholm,
2002). Other researchers find that the information flow is not totally
free in online forums, but is limited by government media regulations and
often by real-time monitoring as well as ongoing record
keeping. Regulations issued in October 2001 require commercial portals to
save personal information of individuals logged on to their online forums,
and turn it over to official investigators if asked (Hachigian, 2001). The
commercial organizations themselves have web masters and forum moderators
as well as software that may be used to delete readers' comments thought
too politically sensitive or critical of the government (Boas & Kalathil,
2001; Xu, 2003).
In short, study and analysis to date have yielded contradictory
discussions and findings about whether Chinese online media, especially the
commercial portals, pose significant challenges to the government's
ideological advantages. On the one hand, the offering of large quantities
and richer quality of news itself may pose a challenge, because such
conditions inevitably lead to presentation of more varied perspectives on
social reality, making possible greater pluralism of meanings. Moreover,
to the degree exchange of information in online forums transpires without
explicit limitations, it also may counter versions of social reality
presented by mainstream official media. On the other hand, government
regulation imposes explicit constraints on these forums and also results in
more subtle forms of restraint, doubtless reinforcing tendencies toward
self-censorship as well. Therefore, the extent to which Chinese commercial
portals uphold dominant ideology, challenge it, or perhaps do both, and the
ways these processes might occur, have yet to be satisfactorily
explored. Whether and how reinforcement and/or resistance take place via
online media remain unresolved empirical questions.
Ideologies of crime news
Much scholarship on crime news in North America and Western Europe, and
the small amount done on crime news in China, conceptualizes this genre as
an instrument of dominant ideology, upholding the interests of the powerful
and helping to maintain the status quo. This research finds that crime
reports draw stark pictures of acceptable and unacceptable behavior,
offering moralistic condemnation of individual criminals, and propagate a
law-and-order orientation by demonstrating the consequences of misdeeds
(Cohen & Young, 1973; Surette, 1998; Barak, 1994; Grabe, 1999; Humphries,
1981; Barlow, Barlow, & Chiricos, 1995; Zhao, 2003). Some researchers,
along the lines of Foucault's analysis of the rise of penal institutions as
the civilized substitute for torture (1977), even link the disappearance of
public execution with the emergence of newspapers, arguing that news
coverage of crime fulfills functions similar to the gallows or the
guillotine in intimidating potential criminals, promoting morality, and
representing the interests of the dominant class (Grabe, 1999).
More specifically, researchers have found that police tend to be portrayed
as brave and efficient in the news, and that crimes usually make the news
after criminals have been arrested and punished, which shows that justice
has been done (Zhao, 2003; Grabe, 1999). Violence is a prominent criterion
in news attention, and criminals often belong to certain racial, age and
socio-economic groups; for example, in the United States they are often
lower-class young black males (Barlow et al., 1995); and in Chinese
tabloids, people of lower classes are more likely to be targets of
discipline and punishment than people from higher classes (Zhao,
2003). Overall, classes which are most victimized within the social
structure in terms of alienation, inequality, unemployment and poverty are
portrayed as predators on society, whereas the classes that reap the
largest share of society's benefits are portrayed as victims (Barlow et
Moreover, crime news emphasizes individual culpability rather than social
context (McManus & Dorfman, 2002; Barlow et al. 1995; Zhao, 2003; Ericson
et al., 1991). Crime stories offer moral character portraits of demonic
criminals and responsible authorities, and this personalization combined
with an event-orientation makes it appear that troublesome individuals
rather than troublesome social structures are at fault, which "mystifies
the social roots of trouble in a society that is structurally unequal"
(Ericson et al., 1991, 9). Similarly, crime stories involving laid-off
workers and migrant laborers in Chinese tabloids do not critically reflect
on the social trappings that endanger their survival; instead, they are
about "the transcendence of their social existence at the individual level"
(Zhao, 2003, 130).
As noted earlier, however, Ericson et al. (1991) have argued that dominant
ideologies of crime news are not necessarily monolithic, and that medium
differences may provide new spaces for contending ideologies to
emerge. The advent of the Internet and its growth even under authoritarian
political systems make it especially important to study how different media
forms might foster ideological variations and pluralism. Since online
media were in their infancy when Ericson and his colleagues were doing
their research, they could not consider the ideologies of crime news on the
Internet, but the time certainly is ripe now for such examination.
A word about the term "ideology," which is often used without
clarification: We regard ideology as a systematic way of representing
reality that is articulated by and in the interests of particular
groups. Mass media are primary instruments for construction, reflection
and reinforcement of this interpretive system, in a process that also
incorporates the masking, distortion and concealment of other versions of
reality (Storey, 1993, 3).
Our point of departure here is the prevalent argument that texts of crime
news generally reinforce existing class and power relations while obscuring
the realities of subordination, tempered by the findings of Ericson et al.
(1991) that medium-specific attributes may create spaces for challenges to
dominant ideology. The prominence of crime news on Chinese commercial
portals makes them a good context for exploring this topic. Through the
case study of a serial killer episode as followed on the two biggest
Chinese commercial online portals, this paper attempts to identify markers
and manifestations of dominant and counter-hegemonic ideology as well as to
discern how ideology-laden messages might be shaped by medium features,
even in an environment of government regulation.
Our main research questions are as follows:
How are ideologies of crime presented in news coverage in China's most
popular commercial portals?
How do readers interpret crime in online forums; do their interpretations
different from the news stories; and if so, how?
We examined a body of online texts revolving around a sensational crime,
said to be the most serious killing spree in recent Chinese history,
resulting in murders of 67 people and injury to ten others over three
years. Both Sohu.com and Sina.com featured the death sentence handed down
the night of February 1, 2004, for the convicted serial murderer, Yang
Xinhai, as the lead headline on their home pages the next day. This puts
the event in a rare category, given that these commercial portals choose
fewer than ten headlines daily for the home pages and are cautious about
all these selections, above all the top story (Xu, 2003). In addition,
each portal immediately created a special section on the topic, offering
comprehensive coverage of the event and inviting readers to post comments.
The special news sections carried both factual stories and commentaries
speculating on the deeper meanings of the crime, illustrating the medium
features of expansive quantity and quality. Our textual analysis of these
news and opinion articles looked specifically at how the articles
represented three aspects: the criminal, the police, and the causes and
motives of the crime. Our focus on these three points was derived both
from the literature of crime news coverage and the fact that virtually all
the items in the news sections touched on these issues.
Invitation to discussion in the two commercial portals triggered thousands
of readers' messages following the release of the news on February 2,
2004. Our analysis of readers' comments looks comprehensively at just the
first day's worth of messages, when the event dominated the two portals'
home pages and thus was most visible to online readers (by the next day,
the headline had been removed from the home pages and buried under other
news layers). It is our assumption that readers were more likely to read
the news and post messages on that first day—and indeed, the greatest
activity was on that day. All readers' messages posted to the two
commercial portals on the first day were read, and major themes of readers'
discussion identified. Messages posted on the second day were browsed for
further evidence of these themes. On both sites, the serial murder story
was the only crime news topic singled out for readers' discussion during
the days considered.
Themes in the news coverage
News of the serial killer case first appeared on both commercial sites'
home pages prominently and at the same point—after the criminal had been
sentenced to death. The sentence and subsequent execution also headlined
the special news topic sections.
Selections of news items, reproduced from conventional media outlets with
newsgathering privileges, also were similar on both portals. Almost all
came from metropolitan newspapers or their online versions; the only
differences were Sina.com's inclusion of an account from the China's
Central Television, and Sohu's inclusion of a story about the sentence from
the online edition of Xinhua news agency.
The two portals' overall displays of news also resembled each other, with
reports of the prosecution and sentencing first in the special news
section, followed by accounts offering overviews of the crime, and then
recommended media commentaries speculating on causes or pointing to
responsibility and drawing lessons. There also was interactive access
associated with each article. This material constituted the top portion of
the special section.
Lower down, each special section offered a large compilation of both news
stories and commentaries with the subtitles "latest developments" and
"media commentary." Sohu.com included about 50 stories under developments
and 24 commentaries; for Sina.com the figures were 70 and 17. The stories
and commentaries range over a considerable period prior to when the crime
had come to nationwide attention, from mid-November 2003, when the suspect
had been arrested, to mid-February 2004, after the death sentence.
Both sites ran photographs. These displays differed somewhat: Sohu.com
ran pictures along the right side of the site, while Sina.com put them
between the top, showcased items with links to readers' discussion and the
lower part with greater volume of news and commentary. Sohu.com photos
included crime scenes, victims and their relatives, while Sina.com had more
images, including trial scenes.
Our analysis of news texts focused on the top part of the special
sections, with some additional checking throughout the lower part for
recurring themes. We found that the showcased news items and commentaries
on both these commercial portals yielded some clear patterns concerning
representations of the criminal, the police, and causes and motives behind
the crime. The following themes common to coverage in both sites emerged.
Moral condemnation of the criminal: The news coverage denounced the
criminal as a moral deviant and repository of evil. Headlines typically
referred to him as a "butcher" or "devil;" stories presented him as
cold-blooded and arbitrary. Various items related how he had sneaked into
a home late at night and murdered an entire family with an ax, and
commented on how he left relatives of the victims heartbroken and also left
behind innocents, especially young children.
Stories made it clear the criminal was lower class; he came from a rural
area of Henan Province, had dropped out of high school to become a migrant
worker in cities, and changed jobs frequently. Previously he'd been caught
and punished for theft and robbery. His initial criminal act had been a
theft of his boss's kitchen appliance, and commentaries suggested that once
he'd tasted illegal acquisition his criminal career was set. "This was his
first theft, and also the first time he realized money could be gotten so
easily"(Sina news, 12/09/2003). He was presented as lacking willpower,
unable to stand the hardships of life, going down a slippery slope of crime
and eventually succumbing to temptations.
Factors mitigating the moral depravity: Along with the emphasis on the
criminal's moral deficiencies, the commercial portals presented a great
deal more information about him in a comprehensive way, illustrating the
opportunities of the unlimited news hole. Sometimes this material
counteracted the moral condemnations of the criminal.
For example, a long interview with the criminal's parents after his
sentencing was introduced with observations about the poverty of his
hometown, and the fact that the criminal's home was the poorest in the
whole village. The account said: "There is no decent furniture in the
house except a wooden bed" (Sohu news, 12/05/2003). The parents said their
son had been very smart and quiet as a child, done well in school and been
expected to go to college. Although he'd sometimes done tedious jobs to
help support the family, they were surprised when suddenly he dropped out
of high school and went to work as a migrant laborer. The story said that
sometimes his bosses refused to pay him. The account did not explain the
abrupt switch from schoolboy to migrant worker, and still less the change
from honest and quiet peasant lad to cruel predator, but the indications
were inescapable: Although news accounts and commentaries never suggested
outright that this man stole because of poverty and deprivation of rights
as a lower-class migrant worker, the additional factual information
provides an opening for this contending interpretation.
Individualization of the causes of crime: By these news accounts and
commentaries, the criminal seemingly had no rational reasons to
kill—although he was poor, it was not clearly for money, nor did he know
any of his victims. Most articles speculate that the murderer simply had
mental disorders and a natural inner tendency to kill; indeed, the terms
"criminal personality" and "dangerous personality" appeared frequently and
were the most common explanation for the crimes.
The idea that the man had killed to take revenge on society also came up,
but even this view was framed as an individual matter. Some accounts said
the criminal hated women and society because he had been dumped by a
girlfriend and jailed for theft, but beneath those issues he had a deeper
pathology. "Even if he hadn't broken up with his girlfriend, he still
would kill madly out of other dissatisfactions with society, because
society would never assure smooth sailing for anyone for a lifetime" (Sina
news, 11/17/2003). This kind of argument suggested that personal
difficulties in life are inevitable and it is simply the individual's duty
to overcome them.
Diversion of the responsibility from the police to the public: Since the
criminal was arrested after killing 67 people over a period of three years,
news articles and commentaries naturally raised the question of why it had
taken so long to recognize and capture the criminal, and who should be
responsible. Generally, the police's responsibility for capturing the
criminal late was excused and diverted to the criminal's methods as well as
the public's lack of responsibility in safeguarding itself.
First, the criminal was portrayed as very professional and proficient at
thwarting police investigations. "He often wore bigger shoes when breaking
into houses. So based on the footprints the suspect was always thought to
be taller than the criminal was"(Sina news, 11/19/2003). Secondly, the
news represented the criminal as picking victims randomly and lacking any
apparent motive for the killings, which increased the challenges for
investigators. Moreover, victims themselves and the public more generally
were assigned responsibility for their own safety. Stories noted that most
victims' homes were easily broken into, which police said indicated that,
"The victims lacked awareness of how to protect themselves" (Sina news,
While news stories and commentaries did not blame police for their
slowness to capture the criminal, they did suggest that police should have
informed people of the danger from the time the first person was
killed. But even then the criticism was muted and self-protection
emphasized: "The public should have the right to know of the crime when it
first happens, and therefore be aware of the potential danger and able to
protect themselves"(Sohu news, 11/21/2003). And further excuses were
found: "The police didn't let the public know earlier for three reasons.
First, they are afraid of losing face. Secondly, they are afraid that
potential criminals could imitate the crime. Third, they are afraid of
arousing public anxiety and disturbance"(Sohu news, 12/05/2003).
Themes in the readers' discussion
Both portals encouraged readers' response with comments like "express your
views" beside the main headlines in the special sections. More than 600
hundred messages were posted to the discussion forum on Sohu.com the first
day, and some 400 on Sina.com. Most wrote in anonymously, signing off as
simply a "user" although with identity markers represented by the IP
addresses of computers from where messages were sent (a typical sign off
would be "Sohu user, 23:41 p.m., 02/02/2004, IP address 221.192.204").
As with the main news and commentary content, readers' postings were not
dramatically different on the two web sites—with one exception; but the
patterns revealed in these discussion forums are decidedly different from
the news and opinion articles. Certain themes that were prominent in the
news section were little mentioned or even ignored in readers' discussions,
such as the psychological problems of the criminal (about 30 messages on
Sohu and 14 on Sina), the public's right to know about the crime earlier
(about 18 on Sohu and 20 on Sina), and the exigencies faced by the police
in trying to solve the crime (about 9 on Sohu and 5 on Sina).
The one interesting exception to the basic thematic resemblances in the
two portals' discussion forums was a difference in attention to a widely
held regional stereotype in China. Sina.com featured a heated debate about
the inherent character of people from the murderer's home province of
Henan, for good or ill. Some readers argued that the criminal demonstrated
Henan people's typical moral turpitude, which triggered disagreement from
other readers. Comments on the order of, "Henan people are all cheaters"
(Sina user: 05: 33 a.m. 02/02/2004) were countered with comments such as,
"Every place has bad and good people. Don't be so radical" (Sina user:
14:22 p.m. 02/02/2004). Regional stereotyping, although not uncommon in
China, also is considered a touchy and somewhat distasteful tendency, and
one wonders whether it is merely accidental that one site dwelt upon it a
great deal while the other did not. It might have been chance that readers
of one site attached importance to the issue; it's also possible that a
moderator on Sohu.com decided messages of this sort were inappropriate and
did not post them.
The following are major themes that emerged in the interactive portions of
Moral condemnation of the criminal and criticism of the police: The most
frequent themes in the discussion forums were moralistic condemnation of
the criminal and support for the death penalty, and also criticism of the
inefficiency of the police for not capturing the criminal earlier. There
are about 190 messages on Sohu and 130 on Sina condemning the murderer's
cruelty, and 110 messages on Sohu and 115 on Sina criticizing the police.
The castigation of the criminal corresponded to this theme in news
coverage, with many readers calling him a "devil," "animal" or non-human
fully deserving of capital punishment. Most readers' comments in this
category were short, using only one or two words or a simple sentence to
express anger and shock.
The construal of police behavior in readers' discussion was quite
different from that in the news, however. Most criticism targeted the
slipshod and inefficient performance of the police. Some readers
questioned why three years had passed with more than 60 killed before the
police captured the perpetrator. "A poor peasant could kill 67 people in
three years. Where had all the police gone?" (Sohu user, 20:16 p.m.,
02/02/2004). Readers refuted the suggestion in news items that the public
was responsible for its own self-protection and awareness, and argued that
the police had the obligation to protect the public effectively. They saw
the time that elapsed for solving the crime as negligence of duty, some
even calling for an investigation of the police.
Social roots of the crime and voices from the powerless: Observations
about the social roots of crime constituted the third most frequent theme
in readers' postings to Sohu.com (about 120 messages) and the fourth on
Sina.com (about 50 messages). Moreover, some striking comments in this
category claimed to give voice to underprivileged groups and represented
both the criminal and the victims as powerless.
The major social reasons for the crime discussed by readers were growing
disparities between rich and poor, discrimination against powerless social
groups, and official corruption. "The deep reasons for the crime are
social," wrote one reader. "It has more to do with inequality,
discrimination and corruption than with psychological problems" (Sina user,
00:32 a.m. 02/02/2004). "The social inequality between rich and poor is
increasing," wrote another. "I hope the poor peasant brothers could get
rich one day, and don't have to be exploited and discriminated against and
suffer" (Sohu user, 23:18 p.m. 02/02/2004).
Remarkably, voices seldom heard in conventional news items were projected
and communicated in these readers' discussions as coming from disadvantaged
social classes. Wrote one reader: "As a son of peasants, I can understand
the sadness of the criminal." This person recalled that poverty in high
school had almost forced him to drop out of school and work to make money,
as the criminal did; and said some brilliant classmates indeed had left
school because of poverty. Both they and the criminal would have had "a
much better life" had they been able to complete their educations, the
writer said (Sohu user, 21:00 p.m. 02/02/2004).
Other readers indicted official malfeasance, saying corruption accentuated
social inequality and vanquished the hopes of poor peasants to make a
better life through honest labor. "When they feel hopeless and helpless,
they turn to illegal means,"wrote one (Sina user, 10:04 a.m.,
02/02/2004). Inequality and social injustice also entered into the
question of why the capture of the criminal had taken so long. Many readers
suggested the explanation lay in the fact that most victims were also
impoverished peasants. A reader said: "The case took so long because all
his victims were poor people. If he'd killed a wealthy or influential
person, the case soon would have been be resolved. Poor people's lives are
worthless"(Sohu user, 22:18 p.m., 02/02/2004).
The idea that victims should protect themselves did not prove popular
among readers. One pointed out that the homes of the poor are easily
broken into: "It is not because they don't know how to protect themselves,
but because they are poor and can't afford a more solid house." (Sohu user,
22:40 p.m., 02/02/2004). Some readers accused the authorities of trying to
cover up for themselves at the cost of poor people's lives. One reader
even declared: "It seems that we should make it clear that the police are
not for the poor, but for the rich and powerful" (Sohu user: 08:30 p.m.,
News texts capture meanings that journalists have "fixed from the flow of
events," in the words of Ericson et al. (1991: 341). Online media, which
as noted earlier had not truly arrived when these researchers were
examining crime news, adds novel dimensions to this process of fixing
meaning. Specifically, as found in this study, the vast possibilities of
the unlimited news hole allows for additional materials that would not find
room in traditional print and broadcast media; and interactivity invites
voices of non-journalists in a manner both intensive and expansive that
greatly exceeds what letters or "talk back" features in conventional media
In the case considered here, Chinese online commercial portals indeed
reflect contending ideologies of crime in ways attributable to these medium
features of unlimited news hole, which allows for increased quantity and
depth, and interactivity, which is at once a selling point of the medium
and an entry point for additional perspectives and even challenges.
In the news and commentary area, accounts still to a large degree favored
the interests of the powerful over the powerless; the inefficiency of the
police was excused and responsibility shifted to the public; the causes of
crime were individualized and social factors concealed. Yet the expanse
for additional factual information which also helped feed the forums for
readers provided possibilities for contending interpretations of causes and
implications of crime to emerge. Thus, even though the news sections did
not explicitly interpret poverty or inequality as the origins of crime,
they did provide information that might point in this direction.
Equipped with such factual information from the news, and given the
opportunity to contribute their own views and experiences, readers voiced
concern about social issues underlying crime, expressed standpoints of the
poor and underprivileged, and questioned the authority and intentions of
the powerful. The result was that, even as news accounts generally
reinforced prevailing social relations, readers' comments upturned them
with often pointed analyses of inequality, poverty and
discrimination. This case study, admittedly just a start to exploring how
online media may reinforce and/or challenge dominant ideologies in crime
coverage, suggests that both processes are underway simultaneously. We
would not suggest that, in themselves, the technological attributes of of
the Internet ensure space for social critique; rather, in a period of
social ferment, they are important factors that can help open new spheres
of meaningful public discussions, even under circumstances of government
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Sohu.com and Sina.com special topic sections with news, commentaries & forums:
Sohu.com news stories and commentaries:
Yang Xinhai sentenced to death for murder and rape in four provinces
Yang Xinhai to be executed soon (02/02/2004).
Slaughterer Yang Xinhai denies two charges (02/02/2004).
Investigation of Yang Xinhai's serial killing crime (11/21/2003).
Why Yang Xinhai became a bloody murderous devil (12/05/2003).
Government responsibility in serial killing (12/05/2003).
The public's rights to know, no resolution and no notification (11/21/2003).
Aluminum appliance and Yang Xinhai's evil career (12/10/2003).
Experts' opinions of crazed serial killing (11/24/2003).
Criminals should be more strictly controlled (02/02/2004).
Henan killer Yang Xinhai: From good boy to butcher (02/02/2004).
Silence is connivance (11/24/2003).
Lessons of serial killings (11/21/2003).
Warnings from serial killings (11/24/2003).
Sina.com news stories and commentaries:
Yang Xinhai sentenced to death (02/01/2004).
Devil denies two charges (02/02/2004).
Yang Xinhai to be executed (02/02/2004).
Yang Xinhai on trial (02/02/2004).
Profile of Yang Xinhai: criminal personality and anti-social deficiencies
How the crime was solved (02/02/2004).
Investigation of the crime (11/21/2003).
How to treat irrational crime (02/01/2004).
The public's rights to know, no resolution and no notification (Sina:
Why Yang Xinhai became a bloody butcher (Sina: 12/09/2003).
An aluminum appliance and Yang Xinhai's evil career (12/09/2003).
Lessons of serial killings (11/19/2003).