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Feb. 13, 2014, 10 a.m.

From Nieman Reports: Detecting threads of Chinese government propaganda over time

“Fished out of the shadows, old news coverage in China’s media can provide clues to the family connections of government officials as reporters investigate their financial dealings.”

Editor’s note: The new issue of our sister publication Nieman Reports is out and online. There’s a lot of great reading in there on a variety of subjects, but the primary focus is on the state of journalism in China, with a number of terrific reports from both Chinese journalists and foreign correspondents posted there.

This week, we’ll be sharing excerpts from some of those stories that would be of the most interest to Nieman Lab readers. Here, Qian Gang, former deputy managing editor of Southern Weekly and co-director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, writes about how simple search tools can open up new perspectives on Chinese media history.

nieman-reports-winter-2014-coverI became a journalist in 1979. Back in those days, two basic skills were required of any journalist: reporting and writing. Three decades later, in an era of dramatic technological changes, these basic skills alone are no longer sufficient. Journalists now require a third basic skill: They must learn how to mine important facts and trends from the mountains of information all around them.

It was 1991 before I used a computer for the first time. We called this “giving up the pen,” which simply meant you exchanged your pen for a keyboard and mouse. It was around that time too that I heard about an ambitious project to carry out computerized analysis on the “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a work of classical Chinese literature. The idea was to arrive at different speech patterns among various characters in the novel by mapping the frequency of different types of utterances.

Ten years later, in 2001, I was serving as the deputy managing editor of Southern Weekly, a relatively young commercial newspaper that had carved out a reputation as a more freewheeling publication. That year, unfortunately, a number of our reports fell afoul of Communist Party censors. After I was removed as editor, I accepted an invitation for a fellowship at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, just over the border. It was in Hong Kong that I stumbled across complete historical archives on disc of the Party’s official People’s Daily and the People’s Liberation Army Daily. I was quickly obsessed. I used the archives to hone my search skills, analyzing coverage in these two papers before and during the Cultural Revolution. The result was a full-length paper called, “The Emergence and Transformation of Red Political Terms.”

This experience was entirely new. In the past, relying purely on manual analysis, it had been virtually impossible to accurately determine how phrases like “Mao Zedong Thought” or “dictatorship of the proletariat” — terms that had had a deep impact on the course of the Cultural Revolution — had been used over time. Now, computer technology made it possible to enter a simple keyword and arrive at these results almost instantly. All at once, the numbers hidden within a sea of language revealed themselves.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2014, 10 a.m.
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