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February 2, 2011

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Blacklist for fake news

EVERY year Shanghai Journalism Review lists China's top 10 fake news stories, naming and shaming reporters and media in an effort to improve accuracy and ethics. Yao Minji reports.

When Lu Yiran, then editor-in-chief of the Shanghai Journalism Review, launched the "Top 10 Fake News Stories of the Year" in 2001, he hoped it would be "the first and the last time to compile such a list."

His hopes were dashed. For the past 10 years, Lu has been naming and shaming, issuing annual blacklists, lists of 10 stunners, 100 frauds in all. They are chosen for their significance, impact and notoriety. They show a shocking lack of journalistic standards - some are deliberate frauds, some result from carelessness and lack of supervision. All were widely republished.

They're a sad commentary on the state of journalism in China, but Lu, who recently retired, says there's plenty of blame to go around.

"'Fake news' is a complicated problem that can't be simply resolved or blamed on journalists, although many journalists are far from professional," Lu tells Shanghai Daily.

"There are many other causes. For example, media bosses don't take these issues seriously or take responsibility, encouraging reporters to fake it.

"Information is not transparent enough and official departments are difficult to reach, discouraging journalists from investigating in depth."

Most of the frauds are in print media and only in recent years has online media been included. One item (the report on the "death" of author Louis Cha) made the 2010 blacklist from weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. It appeared on many sites, including the official weibo of China Newsweek, an influential magazine. Liu Xinyu, deputy-editor-in-chief in charge of editorial, apologized on his weibo page, and resigned. "It is the first time I have seen a media boss here take responsibility in such matters. He did the right thing and I respect his courage," Lu tells Shanghai Daily.

Only one fraud is from TV - the notorious "cardboard dumpling" "investigative" piece.

Lu says most media bosses and editors lack the courage to admit mistakes. They frequently argue vigorously and some even threaten Lu and his colleagues, demanding their names be removed from the blacklist.

"They often threaten to have the journal shut down or go to court," Lu says, admitting that at times the situation got so ugly that they were forced to change the list. He won't reveal the names of the blackest of the black.

Over 10 years, the journalism review was sued only once for libel and that involved misleading use of a photograph in 2009. The case is still in court.

"I'm always surprised at their logic. How dare they fight us when they are the ones who made mistakes?" says Lu.

"Over the years, I have learned we have different understandings of 'fake news'."

For Lu, anything that is not objective truth is fake, which means if there's any flawed information, the whole item is fake. But for the media, it seems, news is only "fake" if it was deliberately fabricated by a reporter or editor.

The case in court involves a newspaper blamed in 2009 for publishing a picture of heavy snow in Italy a year before to illustrate a story on snow in Shijiazhuang City in Hebei Province.

The review included proof from netizens who showed that the Italian picture was cut and pasted from a website and the site's logo and some buildings were altered.

The paper argued that there was no intention of faking news. It sued for libel and damage to reputation.

Lu and his colleagues have been trying to cooperate with official departments and national media to make the list more authoritative. So far there's no interest.

"Official departments in charge of news and media are very supportive and have given us numerous awards and encouragement over the years," says Lu.

"But they will not take the lead."

Fake news and facts


? Fake

The Weekly World News, a sensational US tabloid, reports from Egypt that a 3,000-year-old female mummy is eight months' pregnant. A museum employee claims paternity, saying he couldn't resist the beautiful mummy. Published by (2002).


Weekly World News is a notorious tabloid and it was astonishing that editors published this "technology news." After Internet users left sarcastic comments, it was moved to "social news" and then to "foolish news."


? Fake

According to, quoting Xinhua's International Herald Leader, the second generation of identity cards for Chinese citizens will be produced by a Japanese enterprise. Published by China Youth Daily.


The original article from the International Herald Leader didn't say cards would be made in Japan. The author didn't check the original article and repeated the report.

? Fake

Men with bars smash a BMW 760 sedan on November 6 outside a KFC in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province. Ms Xu takes her grandchild to KFC and later the child scratches the car. The owner slaps the boy who cries. Grandma calls her son who arrives with six Benz cars and henchmen. He tosses 1.8 million yuan (US$273,116) to the owner, saying he's buying the car, then tells his men to break it up. This was published by a few newspapers in Sichuan.


This is a typical example of an old story refurbished into "news." It was an urban myth seen on many online forums and the writer just made up a "when" and "where."


? Fake

Beijing TV Station broadcasts "news" that its reporters went undercover to "discover" how waste cardboard was turned into dumpling stuffing. It gets national attention.


A government and police investigation found that reporter Zi Beijia hired migrant workers to make dumplings with shredded cardboard boxes. Zi was sentenced to one year in prison for damaging a product's reputation and fined 1,000 yuan. He was the only reporter charged among all the cases over 10 years.


? Fake

On June 11, Shanghai Kangqiao Police Station is called by a woman saying her daughter, He Ting, has been raped in a crowd at the ongoing World Expo. The girl calls for help but crowds are so busy fighting for tickets that no one hears and the few who do try to help cannot reach the girl. This appears on numerous Internet news sites, all quoting Xinmin Evening News and "reporters" Li Jia and Liu Jing.


There were no reporters Li Jia or Liu Jing at Xinmin Evening News and the paper never published such an article. The "news" first appeared in an online BBS, went through numerous versions and appeared on many influential Internet news portals.


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