Foreign media depending on Chinese microblogs [graph]

Readers of English-language news on China have likely noticed a surge in references to netizens, microblogs, and a specific microblogging service called Sina Weibo. Angel Hsu noted this was increasing, and I thought I’d check to see how much.

For a really rough measure of how much foreign reporters are depending on Chinese microblogs to cover public sentiment, I searched LexisNexis’s “Major World Publications” database for mentions of China along with any one of the words “weibo,” “microblog,” or “micro-blog.” (Weibo, in addition to being Sina’s brand, literally means “micro blog.”)

This measure is horribly imperfect. To begin with, some stories are double-counted, and there’s no reason to assume Nexis is representative of foreign media. Moreover, some of these mentions are stories about Sina Weibo itself, not quoting its users. I wrote one such article for Talking Points Memo.

The trend, however, seems clear. After the first mentions in mid-2009, when Sina Weibo launched, Nexis shows few mentions until a surge beginning in late 2010. In the last few months, the trend is upward.*

See for yourself:

*Note: I counted 76 stories so far in August 2011, which leads to an estimate of 262.

If you want the data yourself, for what it’s worth, you can find a CSV file here. Please respect the Creative Commons license under which this site is published.

Update: Chinese translation / 译言网翻译





6 responses to “Foreign media depending on Chinese microblogs [graph]”

  1. […] Microblogging platforms are playing an ever more prominent role in media coverage of China. On his Transpacifica blog, Graham Webster attempts to quantify the boom: […]

  2. Will Avatar

    Interesting. Do you have a judgment on this, whether its good, bad or neutral? (I tend toward the third myself — it can be very useful or just plain lazy depending on how it is used.) Also, how do we interpret the rise? Is it simply paralleling the rise of the medium as a popular social force? Making journalists lazier? Giving them access to something they never had before? Helping them to overcome reporting restrictions? Lowering the signal-to-noise ratio? And last question: How does it parallel the rise of quoting microblog or social network sentiment in US news stories?

    I don’t actually expect answers to these questions, but they were what went through my head as I looked at the graph.

    1. Graham Webster Avatar
      Graham Webster

      My initial thought was that, if you’re going to argue by anecdote, Weibo should be better than a taxi driver to describe some sector of public sentiment. I really don’t have a strong feeling on the “good” or “bad” content here, but it is interesting. For journalists trying to explain Chinese events to a U.S. or other English-speaking audience, Weibo posts are going to play into the story these days. For stories that have to be written very quickly and where journalists lack time for interviews, this adds information. I just hope it doesn’t make people lazy about going out and talking to folks, and I have no reason to believe it will.

      If I had more time and more data, I would have done a few things to make this more interesting:

      (1) Correct for Weibo usage numbers (which I don’t have… anyone?)

      (2) Correct for mentions of China overall. Some of these changes might be related to light or heavy China news months.

      (3) Correct for refs to Twitter over some similar timeframe in U.S. stories… Or something like this.

      So, I considered a lot of those things and then decided I had other things to do and stopped with the brute measure.

  3. 烏勇 Wu Yong Avatar

    The big question, in my mind at least, is ‘How can we know what “real” Chinese people are thinking?’ In a country like China, where the government can mobilise its vast resources to police the internet, it is quite possible that there are very big news stories that are never reported. 

    Of course, Weibo has the potential of paralysing the state censorship once the number of tweets reach a critical mass. That was the case with the Wenzhou train crash.

    We should remember that the people on Weibo aren’t average Chinese people. If journalists focus too much on what’s happening online, they might miss out on some very important stories that affect people without smartphones or Weibo accounts.

    There is still a need for foreign correspondents to get away from the expat lifestyle of Beijing and Shanghai and find out what’s happening elsewhere.

    1. Graham Webster Avatar
      Graham Webster

      I very much agree, Wu Yong, that journalists need to get out of the comfortable areas. The dilemma as I see it is how to concisely (because it’s journalism) drive home the point that China is phenomenally diverse. 

      I would even go as far as to say there is no such thing as an “average” Chinese, but of course I agree that taking Web users as representative is as big a folly as any. I do think, however, that social media are giving journalists access to a far wider variety of Chinese people than they had before. I’m thinking of Evan Osnos’ “Angry Youth” story, for instance, in which an individual with strong views was tracked down out of many.

      Moreover, social media use is growing in the areas of China where foreign journalists seldom visit. So, given that there is likely no foreign correspondent living in, say, Hefei, Anhui (despite 1.5 million+ population), online reporting could help a reporter based elsewhere get a grip on what’s going on…

      In sum, it seems like a mixed picture to me.

  4. […] Although Keating writes for “The World” blog, which seems to cover all continents in reasonable proportion, “If It Happened There” seems to almost directly satirize the journalistic clichés of China reporting in particular – something I’m personally familiar with. Some of the clues are more obvious than others, most notably the reference to Twitter as “an American version of Sina Weibo“; the Animal Planet-like coverage of Thanksgiving which maps directly to Americans’ coverage of Chinese New Year; and the use of a taxi driver as a vox populi stand-in for the presumably terrified citizenry, only recently surpassed by an arbitrary sampling of Weibo tweets. […]

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