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Yao Beina case puts spotlight on media ethics

Yao Beina Photo: Huayi Brothers Media Corporation

When the pictures of the recently deceased singer Yao Beina were posted on the Internet, it caused uproar in China’s net community. Yao rose to fame because of her participation in the extremely popular singing contest Voice of China. In 2014, she sang the Chinese version of the soundtrack “Let it go” for the Disney animation movie Frozen.

Yao was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2011. Before her participation in Voice of China in 2013, Yao underwent a mastectomy, but eventually lost the battle against the disease. She died on January 16, aged 33.

According to different media reports, Yao agreed to donate her corneas for transplant the day before she died.

While many fans were shocked by the sudden death of the singer, media attention increased and journalists tried to get a slice of the story by any means. Reporters of the Shenzhen-based tabloid Shenzhen Evening News reportedly dressed as medical staff sneaked into the operation room to take pictures of Yao’s dead body.

In the course of the events, Yao’s agent together with her family stepped in and prevented the tabloid from publishing the photographs. The newspaper delivered an apology, but apparently the reporters fought back and complained about press freedom.

The incident triggered a debate among the Chinese public. Outraged netizens accused the tabloid of failing to uphold ethical standards.

While reporting on the death of a public figure is normal business in the media world, journalists are expected to adhere to certain ethical standards. Sneaking illegally into an operation room and taking pictures of a dead celebrity definitely crossed that line.

But how should we define that line? There is a clear answer to that question: coercive measures might not be the right way to prescribe ethical media standards and forestall unethical behavior.

The incident also needs to be located in broader context of the media industry in China.  China’s media is riddled with the problem of fabricated news and poor ethical standards, what the state media recently called ‘journalistic pollution’. Of course, the issue has different connotations.

Nowadays media in general, and not just in China, finds itself in a dilemma: the success of online media is judged only by the number of clicks instead of proper reporting. This increases pressure on journalists to produce eye-catching stories.

But it is too easy to blame reporters solely for crossing ethical lines. The other side of the coin is the demand for this kind of news. Today’s media often just tries to please parts of the scandal-hungry public.

The unfortunate events related to Yao’s death remind us of the need for a proper discussion between the providers and consumers of news and tabloid press in terms of what we want to read and how news should be produced.

The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer.

(Opinions expressed in the article do not represent those of the

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