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China's Earthquake on TV and on the Internet

Monday, May 12, at 2:28 pm, I was working at my desk on the 21st floor
of the apartment building where we live in Beijing. Like many other
people at that moment, I suddenly felt dizzy and lightheaded. I gripped
the edge of my desk, wondering if I might faint. Then the curtain pulls
began to sway, and the walls began to creak. After years of living
through earthquakes in Japan, I recognized the signs. After a minute or
so it was over.

Within about 15 minutes, my search for "earthquake China" on Google was
producing results. Reuters showed up first, reporting a website
announcement from the U.S. Geological Survey that there had been an
earthquake in Sichuan Province, about 1000 miles southwest of Beijing.
One of China's most popular English blogs, Danwei.org, weighed in at
2:47 pm, with a short report and including a link to Twitter, which was
beginning to come alive with comments and messages from all over China.
There was nothing on the TV, and there wouldn't be for about four more

I have been tracking the earthquake story on TV and on the internet for
over four days now, and here are some of the things I saw:

Day One: Chinese TV has little more than a few fact-based
reports about the earthquake. Mostly, it's business as usual. The
internet is exploding with news and information and also with reporting
and personal comments in the hyperactive Chinese blogosphere, Twitter,
and all the instant messaging services in China.

Day Two: The TV has a few reporters on the streets doing spot
reporting and interviews from as far into the earthquake areas as they
can reach, which is not very far. There is some footage of organized
response teams, the arrival of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Sichuan,
and scenes of devastation. The internet is getting organized, with
collections of amateur videos, photography, and trading information on
whereabouts of people in the earthquake area who can be useful to each

Day Three: TV pieces become more heavily produced, and they
begin to include solemn background music, as well as announcements
posted in black and white coloring. Talk shows emerge with experts and
officials. There are personal interviews with survivors, and
newscasters occasionally struggle to keep composure. The internet gets
out information on donations as well as quacky theories on whether
animal behavior can predict earthquakes. Everyone agrees that the
government is moving forward with "unprecedented transparency" in media

Day Four: TV pieces take on distinct, strong tones of
nationalistic pride. Flanks of soldiers in army fatigues run in
formation through rubbled streets, clamber over landslides, portage
boats, jump out of helicopters. Medical staff in white uniforms; rescue
squadrons in florescent orange; parades of ambulances. Legions more
soldiers carry the injured piggy-back style or swaddle babies in their
arms. There is footage of cranes, steam shovels, and people digging by
hand through impossible mountains of debris. Also, there is seemingly
no censorship on Chinese TV; the faces in all these productions tell
everything. The soldiers are young; the grief is raw; the eyes are
desperate. Chinese TV viewers are used to melodrama, but it's hard not
to be overwhelmed by the scale and the personal toll. In one scene, a
camera peers into a small crevice left between two collapsed floors of
a building. You see the eyes and face of a young teen-age girl trapped
there. You see she is waving her hand at the rescuers, and she calls
out "I'm happy. I'm happy. Tell my mother not to worry!" Online, the
internet reports dig deeper into seismology; questions of building
standards; comparative (non)reporting of past earthquakes; special
sites for personal messages; pleas for news of missing people; more
information about donations and charities.

This story will continue for a long, long time.


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