How much of what you read is true?

A recent story on the New York Times began with accusations of Chinese corruption, violation of environmental law, intentional assault, and threats against the press. Was it all true, though? The New York Times is well-known as the national “newspaper of record,” and yet that is not the case in this story about Chinese government officials. For international news reports, the Times relies heavily on local newspapers and sometimes simply fails to verify the credibility or follow up with the story.

Here is the background of this particular story: In Shenzhen, China, reporters from the Southern Metropolis Daily, a provincial newspaper, accused 28 government officials, including 14 policemen, of dining on an endangered, expensive species, salamanders, and then of assaulting the reporters who filmed them on January 26, 2015. The newspaper therefore claimed that corruption and violent conflict were involved.

However, public doubts soon raised questions.

The New York Times dedicated a large portion of the article to distinguishing wild salamanders from the cultivated ones that were on the dinner table, yet failed to address the most essential information, that the salamanders-breeding industry is highly developed, which means low prices. While the wild amphibian is a rapidly diminishing species, countless Chinese farmers had joined the market to cultivate it. The New York Times stated that “the animal is difficult to breed and take years to grow,” and therefore “the price of its meat…can exceed $100 a pound.”

And yet, based on the officials’ receipts and the restaurant’s menu that were later exposed, the price of its meat did not exceed $20 per pound, and the 28 officials spent 5400 Chinese Yuan, which was roughly 31 American dollars, per person. The New York Times failed to verify the credibility of its source, and while the price issue was soon clarified back in China, thanks to the people who had clear minds to read what it said on the receipts, the Times continued to fail to update the information. Therefore, if you only speak English, there is practically no other way you will hear about the correction, and you might conclude, “Oh the fish is wildly expensive, and the officials are rich enough to eat it. Are they corrupt?”

Moreover, the article overlooked a crucial question: Who granted reporters the right to start filming after the diners refused to be filmed? According to the New York Times, one reporter “was punched and slapped in the face,” another “was scratched and his phone stolen, while a third was choked and had his camera smashed.” As a result, the Shenzhen government suspended 14 officers. Further investigation said that the dinner was privately hosted by a retired police officer at a restaurant; the reporters from Southern Metropolis somehow heard about it, located it, and snuck into the room, but the article skipped this important premise, that the reporters had overstepped and invaded the officers’ privacy in the very first place.

Last time I checked the law, it is the Commission for Discipline Inspection who has the right to investigate; although reporters are allowed to investigate and supervise officials, once the object has refused to be interviewed, continued efforts to investigate might be considered harassment and personal freedom infringement. To be simple, although it was also unlawful and very unwise for the officials to attack the reporters, the latter initiated the conflict.

I don’t get the point of this New York Times article anyway. It started with a physical attack on the reporters, seemingly raising questions about corruption and freedom of expression. Then, it jumped to concern about the survival of salamanders, and in the end, it abruptly concluded that “the banquet was hosted by Wang Yinghang, who had retired from the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau.” Therefore, if you had read this article before, the ideas of corruption, violence, endangered species might have gone into your mind all at once.

And if you have been patient enough to read my article until here and think that the New York Times simply published an ill-written news article, then let me ask you: how much of what I just told you might be inaccurate? Because, after all, the retired official I mentioned above told  my family members, who, in fact, had affiliations with most of the officials involved in this incident for professional reasons, that no one hit any one. I can’t prove it wrong, nor can I validate it. Since I cannot verify all my information, am I unreliable as well?

How much of what you read every day, on Facebook, Twitter, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, is true? How do we know?

Image: Salamanders.

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