How to Cover the Olympics: A Reporter’s Cliché Book.

Best newspapers on China

In A Reporter’s Guide To Covering The Olympics. Time China Blog gives us a tongue in cheek guide on how to hit every cliché when reporting on China. Sadly, much of it does read almost line for line of what passes for coverage in so many Western publications.

Fortunately, the entire Western daily press does not follow this guide and if you want good coverage of China I suggest you read the following newspapers:

1. Wall Street Journal
2. Washington Post
3. Financial Times
4. New York Times (though its headlines seem oftentimes tend to follow Elegant’s guide).
5. The Times
6. The Guardian

Any others?

What about Canada and/or Australia?

14 responses to “How to Cover the Olympics: A Reporter’s Cliché Book.”

  1. Headlines are written by people sitting comfortably in the newsroom with an eye to making a splash. Reading the story is not required for writing the headline. This explains #4.
    P.S. The NYTimes may also be grumpy at being on a blacklist for press junkets. They keep whining in their articles about not being invited on the first train to Tibet or President Hu’s interview or whatever.

  2. Dan,
    This “Reporter’s Guide” is funny as hell and I can’t stop laughing when reading it.
    Sometimes I wonder why so many seemingly sophisticated, well-educated western journalists are so easy to fall into such a trap when it comes reporting China. Certainly bias, unfamiliarity with the country’s language and culture play a role. But I also wonder if when writing these stuffs, the western journalists carefully tailor their reporting to suit a certain target audience, often the domestic or western ones. Sort of politically correct reports. My evidence? If you read China blogshere run by westerners, the views are much more diversed and nuanced.
    “Kung Fu Panda” phenomenon, as reported by Washington Post is very thought-provoking. Other than a jerky Chinese artist, Kung Fu Panda is universally liked by the Chinese (and the world over) and has caused much of this self-reflection and “China-bashing” by Chinese themselves. None of the tons of western journalist reports, often ‘China-bashing” oriented, has had such an effect. Of course, it helps that the “Kung Fu Panda” team has demonstrated their understanding and mastery of Chinese culture and elements, yet with distinctive US humor and western creativity. It’s amazing that it has won over the hearts and minds of so many Chinese, amid the Chinese nationalistic fervor of this Olympic year.
    Also, almost all of the awe-inspiring, iconic new buildings are designed by westerners: Bird’s Nest by Swiss, WaterCube by Australian, “The Duck’s Egg” by French, the CCTV building by the Dutch, the new Airport T3 by British, the Linked Hybrid by American and the new Beijing South Rail Station co-designed by the British. Many of these designs were very controversial initially, especially among Chinese, but have now been widely accepted and acclaimed. I believe these buildings will have a lasting impact, not just on the Beijing skylines.
    Two of the defining events for China in the 21st century are China’s entry into WTO and China’s hosting of Olympic Games. Not just the events themselves but more so the long, arduous and painful process of negotiation on the WTO entry protocols – mainly with the western countries – and the long bidding and preparation for the Olympic Games have transformed China in many ways, both visibly and intangibly. These processes ultimately have helped China understand the world much better and have brought China and the world, particularly the west much closer.
    And with closer relationship, you’ll inevitably have disagreements, quarrels and clashes. This year just might be the climax of this long unfolding process started in 1992 when China started bidding for the Olympics and Deng Xiaoping again led China out of its post-Tian’anmen stagnation and funk and The Economist for the first time came out with a cover story to discuss the possibility of China becoming a superpower. Emotions aside, hopefully both China and the west will be looking back at this years’ events and clashes and learn something.
    Yes, Beijing’s air is bad, pretty bad. The embarrassment under the international spotlight hopefully will cause some reflection from the Chinese government and people on the economic development and the environment.

  3. An excellent piece. Yup, that’s exactly what 99% of the western “journalists” say about China.
    “Chinese nationalists” vs. “Patriotic Americans”. Yup, you know what I am talking about.

  4. As a reporter, I have to chuckle at how my fellow foreign correspondents are – on the verge of the Olympics – suddenly unleashing diatribes about the cliches used by (what Rebecca MacKinnon) terms “parachute journalists” on their first visits to China. In any other profession, of course, reasonable people would view catty prejudgment (like that found in Elegant’s post) as, well, the catty rantings of a competitor concerned about new blood infringing upon his well-trod territory. In China, though, Elegant is instead held up as a cautionary truth-teller.
    A couple of weeks ago, on a trip back to the US, I sat down with a number of journalists preparing to visit China, for the first time, during the Olympics. They all work for local news outlets, and they were far from the dimwit broken robots cited by Elegant. In fact, after ten minutes, I really didn’t see why they wanted to talk to me in the first place. They’re intelligent people, good reporters, full of curiosity and integrity. They’ll write what they see, and their readers and viewers will learn something about China. No doubt some cliches will get through – but, for the most part, they won’t be cliches to the correspondents or the readers/viewers who see them for the first time. That’s okay.
    There’s no question that foreign coverage of China is often less than perfect (just as Chinese coverage of the West is less than perfect). But I must admit, the only time that I’ve ever seen some of the cliches like those in the Elegant post are when long-time foreign correspondents and long-term expats complain about them – without citation.

  5. “After saying the nice things about the new buildings, get your translator to find a Beijing yam seller whose slum was knocked down to make way for the Olympic badminton hall. Do a few paras on him, and how all the money thrown at the Games is not helping the poor, and how terrible the huge income gap is. Make sure you write at least three times as much about the yam seller whose slum was pulled down as you do about all the new apartments, new metro lines, the growth in car ownership, the expanding health insurance and all the other good news about China that nobody in the west really wants to know about.”
    – This is exactly what I dislike about the way much of the Western media report China. So many individual journalists accentuate the negatives, and severely downplay the positives, thereby manufacturing a skewed, one-sided and therefore very misleading picture of what China is really like.
    This “Reporter’s Guide” is funny and works very well as a piece of satire, and it sure does hit the nail right on its head.

  6. Obviously there are a lot of first-time visitors to Beijing these days, both journalists and ordinary tourists. What are their first impressions? Why do they think the way they do?
    I have two examples here from two reputable sources: one from BBC and the other from James Fallows’s blog.
    In the first, BBC’s James Pearce is in Beijing to report Oplympics, his first visit to China. His first day experiences are very positive: A positive start (
    Here is what he says in this blog entry:
    “This blog entry is a bit of a novelty. Positive talk about the Beijing Olympics. Who would have thought it! ”
    You can tell he is hedging and throwing in a lot of qualifications there and is almost apologetic for being so positive about his experiences.
    In the entry of James Fallows’ blog on July 20, titled “Another traveler reports on the new, Olympic-ready Beijing airport” (, James quoted a foreign traveler’s reaction to the Beijing Airport Terminal 3:
    “I flew in from Singapore on Wednesday and was amazed that; a) our plane was parked at a gate within 3 minutes of touching down, in contrast to several recent experiences of 30+ minutes of taxiing; b) bags were on the carousel within 5 minutes of my arrival there – and I have a diplomatic passport so got through passport control very quickly; c) only even slightly long line was at customs, where every checked and hand carried bag was being x-rayed. Still, a very smooth arrival.
    But, what was equally striking was the emptiness of this massively monumental airport. Gave it a real Stalinist feeling – built to overwhelm the viewer but far more than is needed, and without any consideration of costs and returns, and with no commercial buzz. Admittedly my perceptions were affected by having flown in from the new terminal at Changi [Singapore’s airport], which was bustling with people and energy, great shops and food outlets everywhere, free internet stations and free movies. The contrast between these two large new super modern airport terminals couldn’t have been starker.”
    What strikes me is his comments about the emptiness of and the Stalinist feeling about the terminal. This knee jerk reaction, to me, reveals a deep-seated prejudice about China. Instead of doing some research or investigation, he rushes to judge with a very outmoded thinking.
    If he had been a little bit more open-minded, he would find out that Beijing Airport is one of the 10 busiest airports in the world and had grown way beyond the design capacity of its existing two terminals (T1 & T2). In fact, the Beijing Airport was so crowded that CAAC had stopped approving any new flights out of Beijing last year. If he dug more, he would realize that Beijing Airport’s T2 was only built in 1999 and, the city is already planning for a second airport now to meet the anticipated demand!
    I’m sure we can find more of these kinds of examples.
    To be fair, China is too large, too complicated and develops way too fast. It’s not easy to keep abreast of all the changes. Even for someone like me who’s a long-time China observer and travels to China regularly, it still an amazing experience to see the constant changes and learn new things.

  7. The stuff that Jane MacCartney writes for The Times is always good, Peter Hessler is usually pretty good as well, coverage over at The Guardian is pretty balanced also.

  8. An interesting cliche book. I’m sure it is of practical use to many western journalists.
    Hey, don’t give them for free. Charge them. Ha, ha …

  9. Yes, there’s a lot of ratty reporting on China, but also a lot of non-reporters who go in with all sorts of assumptions and goals and find what they want to find.
    BTW, for anyone who is – shock, horror – actually going for the GAMES and interested in learning more about how the Chinese view the actual sports, there are some nice tools and a lot of good maps and sports-related vocab at:

  10. Well, since the Economist calls itself a newspaper, I would add them to your list. Their coverage of China is pretty sharp and tends to avoid clichés or at least uses “clichés” in unexpected ways.

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