Who Believes The People's Daily? Bias and Credibility in Authoritarian Media

When it comes to understanding the world of media politics, 85% of the current research on the
subject is concentrated in the US. In evaluating the interaction between media outlets and
citizens in China, Dr. Rory Truex said that his goal was to make this research more comparative
and broaden the discussion in the field. To this effect, the questions he posed were: in places
where the news is controlled, how do citizens perceive the news and how do they trust its
sources? How does this vary across the population?

Dr. Truex began by laying out the Chinese media landscape, which he divided into three sectors:
official papers, which are those under the direct control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),
commercial papers, which are those that are not strictly controlled and try to cultivate a brand of
independence, and foreign papers, which are those that face the lowest degree of control and are
accessible to Chinese citizens through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

He then moved on to discuss the existing theoretical arguments regarding media attitudes: the
naive model, the critical model, and the hostile media model. The naive model contends that
citizens are completely unaware of pro-government biases in media sources, while the critical
model is its diametric opposite, as it contends that citizens are extremely aware of progovernment
biases and therefore distrust media sources entirely. The hostile media model is an
amalgamation of the two, which displays a mix of ideologies who align with their respective
media sources.

The research design for the experiment was fairly straightforward. Dr. Truex targeted Chinese
netizens and conducted his survey online. He took three approaches to gauging their perceptions
of trustworthiness and media bias. The first approach was a direct question method where Dr.
Truex asked respondents to rate the trustworthiness and pro-government bias of fourteen
different newspaper sources across each media group. The second approach had an experimental
design where respondents read randomized sample news stories regarding different subjects,
alongside a randomized pairing of the paper’s title. An example of this is that a story from the
People’s Daily could be paired with the Epoch Times name. The third approach was in the form
of an open-ended question to respondents regarding their attitudes towards domestic media.

From this three-pronged survey design, Dr. Truex found some interesting results. The first is that
Chinese citizens are able to associate which news sources possess a certain degree of progovernment
bias, which pushes against the naive model. In fact, they seem to prefer this bias in
their news, which goes against the critical citizen argument. Another result from this survey is
that perceptions of bias in state-controlled outlets are nearly uniform across the ideological
spectrum, meaning that it is not just the regime skeptics who see the pro-regime bias in official
media, but also the regime supporters as well, thereby pushing against the hostile media model.

There were two reasons Dr. Truex provided as possible explanations for his findings. The first
was that people simply liked the CCP and therefore associated with official media. They saw a
pro-government bias in their media as a positive thing. This was reflected in several of the openended
responses as well, where people reflected a strong pro-government stance. The other
explanation given was that a strong identification with official sources could stem from an ability
to cherry-pick the truth from these sources. People could be aware of the inherent progovernment
bias and navigate through it to access the news and could trust these sources because
they are closer to the government. 

A couple of drawbacks in Dr. Truex’s study were highlighted by both himself and the audience at
the presentation. Dr. Truex pointed out that his selection of newspapers was arbitrary, and he
wished to rectify this in future research. Another drawback raised was the arbitrary attribution of
content to newspaper label, because in theory, a story from The New York Times could be
attributed to the People’s Daily. According to Dr. Truex, respondents might have been put off and
confused during the survey in such cases. He concluded by saying that he expects to conduct
future research in Chinese media politics by studying whether citizens consume different news
topics in different news sources and why that is. Dr. Truex’s presentation presented a perspective
on Chinese media politics that clashes with the conventional perception, furthering the
conversation on understanding Chinese citizens.

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