State of Disarray
Chinese stations in Canada well serve their audience with popular fare from Hong Kong and the People’s Republic. Why the same can’t be said of their amateur news shows
“This job is really boring,” the reporter sighs soon after she begins transcribing an interview for a weekly news show in one of Fairchild TV’s editing suites in Richmond Hill, Ontario. The elevator-sized room is walled by a file cabinet, a ceiling-high shelf of Beta tapes and a sticker-infested desk with an analogue editing system that resembles the head unit of the DeLorean from Back to the Future.
She rewinds the clip for the fourth time. “What does flourishing mean?” she asks in Mandarin. I translate. She moves onto the next 30 seconds. “What’s she saying?” She lets out a long sigh. “Freer? What’s freer?” She turns to me. “Is it ‘of a free’?” I spell the word and explain its meaning, but she’s still puzzled. “It’s a superlative,” I add and get up to write on her script. “And travelled has a v and e before the two ls.”
Behind us, the station’s newsroom is surprisingly quiet for 11 a.m.—just a handful of staff on their desktops, looking for story leads in e-mails and on news wires, and keeping an eye on the feed room where raw footage from CNN, CBC, Global and two Chinese stations air on five small television screens. “What is martial law?” The reporter’s moan redirects my attention. “Whatever, I’ll just write it down first.” Although the reporter I’ve been talking to says she was the editor-in-chief for China Central Television’s Morning News in Beijing for seven months, it will take her a few hours to complete her task—plus, her editor will have to weed out her numerous errors before it goes live.
This is business as usual at Fairchild, the biggest player in the Chinese broadcast news market in Canada. With varying degrees of success, the station tries to serve as a bridge between Chinese culture and mainstream society; it offers a mixture of overseas and Canadian-made programs across the country for an additional monthly cable fee of approximately $15. Along with a daily Hong Kong satellite news show, it runs a Canadian-made evening newscast and seven other weekly current-events programs. But these programs only take up 405 minutes, or 29 percent, of Fairchild’s airtime, of which more than 100 minutes are repeated content; the rest of its airtime is devoted to talk shows, dramas and entertainment news. By mainstream standards, Fairchild’s news is not good. Yet, the 18-year-old station has long prided itself on operating the only Chinese-Canadian newsroom in the country.
Not anymore. In May 2008, a new 24-hour Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese channel called WOWtv started broadcasting and, like Fairchild, it also has a mixture of reruns and homegrown programs, of which only five are news shows—available via cable for about $4 a month. Despite its promises of more local content, high-definition technology and a younger and fresher staff with innovative ideas, this newborn has yet to do in-the-field reporting. While Fairchild usually has four teams of reporters, WOW just has writers who chop recycled footage into one- or two-minute clips.
So although the launch may be a long-anticipated alternative for Chinese-Canadian audiences, viewers aren’t yet getting value for their cable dollars. If Chinese broadcasters don’t start increasing their reporting and offering unbiased news that affects this immigrant group, they risk contributing to the already existing self-centredness and intolerance of other cultures by some in the Chinese community.
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Fairchild Media Group, a business conglomerate based in Richmond, B.C., with investments in media, information technology, retail and real-estate management, runs Fairchild and the all-Mandarin Talentvision. According to a 2007 study by Ipsos Reid, Canadian Chinese Media Monitor, Fairchild Media reachesmore than half of Chinese-Canadian adults in Vancouver and Toronto—the two cities with the highest number of Chinese immigrants.
With the Chinese population in Canada predicted to reach at least 1.8 million by 2017, Chuck Yeung, an elusive businessman originally from Hong Kong with ties to the computer industry, wanted to tap into the gold mine. Yeung’s idea, according to WOW executive producer Joe Tay, was to launch anall-digital TV channel that’s accessible in multimedia platforms for a younger audience.
Currently, some of WOW’s content is available via podcast and live streaming. “We want to extend broadcast beyond the limit of the television so that viewers can watch us through a small screen on their fridges one day.” Tay laughs and glances at his office TV—it’s usually on CNN. Originally a celebrity in Hong Kong, the 47-year-old now arrives at the station around 4 a.m. every morning with a Tim Hortons coffee. He says that WOW is not here to compete, but to offer Chinese-Canadians an alternative. “For the longest time, people had no choice,” he says as he leans back on his chair. “It’s kind of like dating. You can either continue your 20-year-old boring relationship or, hey, look, there’s a younger, fresher, prettier one just right here!”
But clearly, the station wants recognition and ad revenue, which is why it boasts about its investments in broadcast technology and Canadian-made programs: WOW produces more than 50 percent of its content, compared to Fairchild’s 25 percent.
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Having been told that 4 a.m. is when the most arduous news writing session of the day occurs at WOW’s headquarters in Scarborough, Ontario, I arrive one Friday morning to find two people typing up scripts among rows of computers in a dim, cavernous room. Besides the desks, the only furniture is cheap-looking chairs, three red sofas and some host desks that look like they were bought at Ikea.
These early risers are WOW’s “playlists,” essentially assignment editors and news writers for recycled news. They are in charge of scanning news feeds and determining what to run and in which section of the 15- to 30-minute-long newscasts. On the floor today are a former OmniTV intern, who is now the head playlist in WOW’s news department, and a third-year University of Toronto accounting student who was hired for $13 an hour because she can type English and Chinese and has a nice voice. Most of WOW’s employees have minimal training: the station is even known to hire program hosts through Facebook.
At 6 a.m., the first news show of the day begins: screen shots rotate around the rim of a clock and then an italicized title spins forward. After the anchors exchange forced greetings in a sparsely furnished studio containing a glass table and a TV set, the camera cuts to the male host standing in front of the weather green screen. But for the entire segment, he repeatedly stutters and manoeuvres awkwardly in front of the map, at times gesturing to the wrong locations. Despite WOW’s boasts about its high-tech equipment, the morning news show features a television set behind the anchor instead of over-the-shoulder graphics. And during one of the 15-minute Cantonese newscasts, I note 11 stutters and fumbles, in addition to inaccurately timed subtitles. Some of these mistakes are made again when the hosts repeat the same script for the second morning newscast.
During much of the fall, WOW broadcast three such subpar shows throughout the day: two 15-minute Cantonese and Mandarin segments in the morning, then half-hour ones in the afternoon, and again in the evening in all three languages. (The newscasts are now all 30 minutes.) In between isan odd array of news shows, including the imported afternoon Hong Kong satellite news, short segments called News Express aired throughout the day—during which an anchor repeats important headlines—and Front Page News, on which a Hong Kong celebrity literally reads the headlines from various newspapers in front of a green screen.
Meanwhile, over at Fairchild, the state of news is better, but just marginally. The station gives its writers up to five minutes per story, and covers community events often missed by mainstream media. Unlike WOW, Fairchild has an anchor desk—albeit small—that accommodates two news and one sports anchor, over-the-shoulder graphics and an opening segment that doesn’t look like a prelude to a cartoon show. Although Fairchild insists that WOW is not yet a threat to its viewership numbers, it did release a combo cable package with two overseas Chinese stations last summer, clearly to lure customers.
Maybe the poor quality news at both stations can be traced to one key fact: they may not be able to afford much more. In the last decade, more than half of Canada’s Chinese immigrants came from mainland China, and the median income per person of this group is almost $7,000 less than that of Hong Kong immigrants, according to the 2006 census. Since this population doesn’t have a lot of buying power, advertising and sponsorship support don’t bring in enough revenue to fund a full production team, says Fairchild news editor Jeffrey Lee. So for most stories, it relies on news writers who can crank out up to three stories a day using purchased footage. And since Fairchild targets first-generation immigrants who can’t speak fluent English and who watch the news for nostalgic reasons, Lee thinks that a CBC logo on a clip won’t hurt the station’s credibility, “Unless they’re a really picky audience.”
Likewise, Tay admits that investing in WOW’s news production is not a priority. So instead of quality, it offers five broadcasts throughout the day that each have short clips of information presented intermittently on a crawl, a scrolling text bar. This way, viewers can always be in the know without having to wait for competitors’ evening shows: the 5 p.m. Omni Mandarin newscast, the 7 p.m. Fairchild news and the 9 p.m. Omni Cantonese newscast.
Using second-hand news also partially compensates for a skilled team that neither Fairchild nor WOW can afford. Tay says WOW’s playlists are expected to only rewrite and translate, and the playlists themselves say their knowledge of current events and passion for news is enough for the job. “It’s not really about journalistic background,” says Lina Li, the U of T student and playlist. “We have more spirit than the people who are older in age; we’re willing to put in the work and time.” Meanwhile, although Fairchild editors try to hire applicants with work experience, the basic requirement is the same as WOW’s: the ability to speak and type Cantonese and Mandarin. But since Fairchild values experience more than language proficiency, its staff is less fluent than its competitor’s younger team.
However, given that Fairchild pays news staff much less than mainstream media, it can’t expect more from its employees. Perhaps to compensate, editors micromanage. “Journalists have very limited writing freedom here,” says Titus Leung, a Fairchild reporter and a former feature writer for the Chinese newspaper Ming Pao Daily News, as he inserts a Beta tape into the analog switcher in an editing suite. He is cutting down a CBC story about coughing in public, featuring a lanky man hacking around pedestrians in different situations. In the original story, the reporter explains that it was an experiment conducted by the camera crew, but due to the strict time limits at Fairchild, Leung cuts the prologue, which changes the story’s meaning. Regardless, viewers may not have liked the original piece anyway: Fairchild has a conservative audience that prefers news over gimmicks. “When we try new things, they don’t like it,” says Leung.
He’s aware that his employer and the competition both could step up the analysis side of their news. “Any story can be reduced to one line,” he says. “What we need to address is why is this issue important and requires attention?” But after almost three years at Fairchild, he knows this is nearly impossible: reporters just don’t have enough time between writing scripts, recording voice-overs and editing. Some reporters even have to alternate daily between the roles of reporter, writer, editor and assistant editor. Also, some staff take part-time jobs for extra cash, which precludes using that time to stay on top of current affairs. Just a few years ago, a sports reporter disappeared from the station after he was seen in a car advertisement. “I don’t know if they fired him because he was in the commercial,” Leung laughs. “I’ve never done anything like that, but I am always tempted to,” he whispers with his hand covering one side of his mouth. So to compensate for reporters’ lack of news awareness and time constraints, Fairchild’s editors often dictate the angle and analysis they want.
Just then, editor Lee comes by with two Beta tapes. “There were suicide bombings in Pakistan and Iraq today. We don’t have the feeds for the Pakistan bombings yet, so just lead with Iraq and move this paragraph here and add a line about the second explosion at the end,” Lee says, gesturing to the switch-ups on the reporter’s computer screen. When Lee is out of sight, Leung shrugs and says, “See, they tell you exactly how to present the stories.” He sighs and starts rearranging his paragraphs. “Writers—to be frank—are like the editors’ secretaries,” he jokes.
But these stations’ cookie-cutter news is no laughing matter, says Tam Goossen, the vice president of Toronto’s Urban Alliance on Race Relations. Along with its low credibility and dearth of original reporting, the absence of perspective in Chinese-Canadian broadcast news weakens the connection between the content and its audience. “Straight translations mean viewers do not understand the issues’ impact on their community, which further confirms that their news is not worth watching,” she says. Just because Fairchild’s and WOW’s models work for an audience of first-generation immigrants who have no alternatives doesn’t give these stations the excuse to be lazy. “If they don’t start inputting their own voices,” Goossen says, “Chinese news will become redundant.”
It’s perspective and analysis that viewers want today, adds Pierluigi Roi, news director for multilingual channel Omni, which has been on the air for just over 30 years. The relationship between broadcast news and the audience has changed now that viewers can get breaking news every second via satellite, the internet and sites like YouTube.
But Fairchild’s handholding style of management is not confined to the newsroom. At community events, reporters are sometimes discouraged from getting the full story. Senior reporter Linda Tse recalls covering a press conference after a martial arts competition.As soon as she opened her mouth, once she realized all the winners trained with the same master, her cameraman shushed her. “The lesson is, don’t get on people’s bad side and don’t say the wrong things,” she says. “You just shoot it, report it and leave.” But when I ask her the consequences of revealing such a small scandal, she responds, “It’s something you learn on the job, what to say and when to keep your mouth shut. The Chinese community is very weird. So much politics, my goodness.” Leung thinks management assumes that Fairchild’s audience lacks knowledge of Canadian issues and just wants basic information. Anything more complicated would be too time consuming and irrelevant to them.
But Gloria Fung, a Toronto-based independent media commentator, attributes this self-censorship to a bigger political issue. She speculates that Chinese-Canadian media can’t survive without financial support from the Chinese government, allowing it to exert control over coverage despite being an ocean away. For instance, Fung remembers the Chinese-Canadian media aired reports on the chaos in Tibet and its negative impact on China’s reputation right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Though she refuses to disclose any names, Fung says a few print reporters admitted they received “suggestions” from the Chinese consulate and some affluent pro-China leaders regarding what not to report. She also heard that people with business connections with China were threatened and were urged not to fund media organizations critical of China.
As news sources for many first-generation Chinese-Canadians, stations like Fairchild and WOW should re-evaluate their choice of content. Omni Mandarin news reporter Jenny Hu says offering information on a range of communities can better integrate immigrants into Canadian society. “We should have a mindset that, yes, you’re Chinese but don’t forget that you’re living in Canada now. It’s not just Chinese Chinese Chinese anymore.” This magnification of community views becomes a breeding ground for disrespect and intolerance for other cultures, adds Fung. While she understands that Chinese media like Fairchild must develop a community angle, its stories should be relevant to the broader community and written from a Canadian perspective. Otherwise, hyper-Chinese reports could foster tension between immigrant groups, especially for first-generation immigrants, who may be more narrow-minded. “Yes, all media organizations have the responsibility to integrate the audience into the society; yes, they’re responsible for informing the audience of domestic and international issues—but from a Canadian perspective,” Fung says.
But after almost two decades of shallow news coverage, this audience has learned to expect little from their news sources.
Hermia Law, a Hong Kong immigrant who arrived here 25 years ago, says she doesn’t consider what Fairchild is doing as news, but a mix of regurgitated information. She only watches it to fill in the facts she misses from mainstream channels—which doesn’t always work, because the news is often one day late due to the lack of time and delays in receiving feeds. “Sometimes I’ll turn on Fairchild and my husband will say, ‘This was already on yesterday, why are they only talking about it now?’ So he never watches Fairchild. In fact, he doesn’t watch any Chinese news,” she says. Likewise, Wendy Choi—a Hong Kong immigrant and Fairchild subscriber of 12 years—says its story lengths can be compared to radio briefs. And contrary to Fairchild editor Lee’s hope that his audience disregards the logos on borrowed footage, Choi knows it’s a symbol for second-hand information. “But since our English is not that good, we can’t be too picky.”
Yet, Choi feels that these stations have some merit. Fairchild’s coverage of David Chen, the Toronto grocer who was charged with kidnapping and assaulting a suspected thief, for example, reflected the community’s concerns and raised awareness of Chen’s unjust treatment. Despite Choi’s complaints, she agrees that Fairchild’s presence gives Chinese people a louder voice, so the Canadian government can’t overlook their concerns.
But one good story may not be enough, especially since there is a successful model for ethnic-based broadcast news out there: OmniTV. Operated by Rogers Communications, the station serves five language communities, including Cantonese and Mandarin audiences. It also uses pick-up footage, but from its own network of Rogers broadcasters, and focuses on providing context. “It’s not that we don’t send cameras out. It’s a decision not to do that because people are going to get breaking news from CP24, CBC and CTV,” Roi says. “We’re a comfort station to make new Canadians understand the laws and rules of the society, while keeping an eye on the old country.” Omni covers general stories on things such as health and government, but its items highlight how the news affects ethnic audiences, which, Roi explains, is the reason for its success.
Though Fung understands the obvious financial differences between Omni and the Chinese broadcasters, she insists these stations could improve if they focused their resources—however limited—on training their writers and replacing their minute-long briefs with longer, analytical reports that offered exclusive Chinese-Canadian perspectives, thereby fulfilling their role of integrating viewers into society. “If these broadcasters stay at where they are, they’re not going to survive,” she predicts.
But realistically, neither station has serious change on its horizon. Tay says WOW would eventually start training reporters for in-the-field reporting. “News is not extremely important at the moment, but I can assure you that it’s not totally being left behind.” He thinks WOW’s investment in multimedia availability and new broadcast technology—something Fairchild doesn’t plan on doing for a long time—will eventually attract advertisers and viewers. “You have to go at your own pace. We’re a growing company and our quality is improving,” he insists. “In an era where old grandmas are starting to catch onto iPhones, nothing is impossible.”
Perhaps the vicious cycle of low funds and a lack of thoughtful reporting can never be broken, and Chinese-Canadians will just have to tolerate it. Maybe WOW’s approach to broadcast news will develop into the new multimedia winner in the future. But what is for sure is that until Fairchild and WOW start investing in local production, they can never represent a true Chinese voice, but only be a fragmented and weightless extension of mainstream media.
by Joyce Yip
Joyce Yip was the Deputy Production Editor for the Summer 2010 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.