Op-ed: Do Responsible Journalism

If you search “left-behind children” on Google, the world’s most popular search engine, you get 62.4 million results, which number is close to 61 million – the population of left-behind children in China. Then you click on the first piece of news, by the South China Morning Post, and find three sentences emphasized – “China’s ‘left-behind children’ at higher risk of life of crime,” “Tragic accidents just part of a hard life for China’s 60 million ‘left-behind children’,” and “‘Left-behind children’ found stabbed to death in southern China.” Under the spotlight put by media in this way, these children are being stigmatized, stereotyped and discriminated against.

“Life of crime,” “tragic accidents,” “stabbed to death,” these words are what most people come up with when they think about “left-behind children” in China. Although these incidents happen, we have to admit that not every child whose parents are working in urban areas away from their rural hometown is suffering from “tragic accidents” or committing criminal acts.

While I was growing up, I have met many so-called “left-behind children.” Some were my classmates in elementary school and high school; some were my students who I taught while making a documentary film in Sichuan province. None of them committed suicide, wounded his grandparents, or got involved in other crime. On the contrary, they are sensible and diligent.

I can recall the class I taught. It was a small class, with only 30 students but 24 are children left behind by at least one of their parents. However, the class ranked first in the school in their examination results; they built strong friendship with one another. HAN Hui, the top one student in class, is a girl whose parents are both working in Chongqing, a city 400-kilometers away from home. She and her grandmother live in a simple and crude house. The two-floor house was built by her father, but every year he lives in it for no more than ten days. Hui is a typical “left-behind child” but totally opposite to the impression that the media gives to readers.

Most of the 61 million children are living in poor conditions and deprived of parental care. But it doesn’t mean that they misbehave. Sometime they can do better than children who are not left behind. Last month, an elementary school football team from Mianyang, a small city in Sichuan province, won the second prize in a national football contest. Most members of the team are children who are left behind.

I can’t see any reason for us to differentiate them from other children simply because they are left behind. The problem that we should pay attention to is how the country’s unbalanced development forces their parents to become migrant workers. The problem is not the children. Putting a spotlight on them by emphasizing their identity as “left-behind children” generally can cause social discrimination against them.

Go back to the football team. Given that people are used to hearing terrible things about these children, the news reported their victory as a miracle. It spreads a hurtful message that they are kind of like being born disabled or somehow, they can’t achieve as much as other children who are not left behind.

What’s worse is that they may start abasing themselves.

Some media use the phrase “physical and mental health” to indicate what “left-behind children” lack. It sounds like a term that originates from academic experts. But it can foster the conception in children’s minds. Day after day, they will come to a conclusion that they should be physically and mentally unhealthy; then they allow themselves do as they please; finally, they become truly unhealthy.

Two weeks ago, I attended a seminar about the household registration system and migratnt workers in China. Two mainland students from HKU and CUHK told the audience that they used to be “left-behind children” and they see themselves as miseries. They abuse the “left-behind children” tag as an excuse for their struggling. But what they actually complained about is social stratification – they don’t think they can enter the upper-middle class, even though they are now students from elite universities.

Situations of “left-behind children” are complex. Children who are left behind by one parent and those who are left behind by both father and mother are in different conditions. Their all-round performance can be different. Media should not generalize about the group from isolated incidents.

As a journalism student, I feel sad that news can make a negative influence on the group we actually care about and intend to make some positive change. We should treat all children fairly in news report, telling their family background thoroughly instead of simply calling them “left-behind children.” Journalism has a unique responsibility to give a balanced picture of facts. We don’t need to use such an eye-catching term to draw people’s attention.

Wan Huang