Newspapers may not be the force they used to be but the way they handle big stories is still revealing.
Following an extraordinary day in Hong Kong yesterday, let’s see how the main papers covered it.
Main headline: Riot
First up is the Oriental Daily News. Its editors deserve a certain recognition for this powerful front page, even though it is, to be frank, quite misleading.
It has made good use of unpromising material to make the page work. The main photo – under the word ‘Riot’ – is of a crowd partly shrouded in smoke.
Notwithstanding the headline, closer observation shows no sign of anyone moving, let alone causing trouble. But the placement of a ‘rioter’ in the bottom left corner, opposite a heavily-kitted police officer, creates drama as well as a hint of false equivalence between the unarmed demonstrators and the well-equipped cops.
Even better, the protester is throwing a teargas canister, and while this merely tells us he is removing teargas fired at him by police, ODN has framed this small act of self-protection as a violent gesture.
Sing Tao Daily, another pro-government newspaper, dials down the hyperbole but leans in on the equivalence. It’s a violent guerilla war, fought apparently by opposing armed forces, despite the fact that only one side is armed.
Again, the most violent thing in the photo is the smoke.
The South China Morning Post appears determined to make yesterday’s events as dull as possible. Police fired on a peaceful demonstration, dozens were injured, the city locked down, but the Post felt that non-specific ‘calls for calm’ had a greater claim on readers’ attention.
The most striking part of the front page was the pull quote in which the chief executive labels the protest a riot. That is newsworthy, but it is more newsworthy if it is made without any meaningful evidence. Shamefully, the Post, which had a team of reporters and photographers across the entire protest, reproduced it without query.
And while the SCMP deserves credit here for appropriating Propaganda Department language, it balances out a mildly critical story on the impact of the extradition bill with a soporific tale of Admiralty businesses being disrupted.
Ming Pao carries probably the most neutral and descriptive headline, accompanied by a striking photo of a protester struck by a pepper spray bullet. His agony is captured by a press pack metres away, while nearby dozens of riot police line up behind metal barriers. The sight of the large media contingent reminds us – so many photos, yet no sign of a riot.
Finally we come to Apple Daily, the only major newspaper not controlled by Beijing-friendly interests. It makes no pretence at neutrality, yet (or more likely because of this) its coverage is far and away the most compelling.
It doesn’t waste time on Carrie Lam’s tame interview or on false equivalences. It’s a direct, detailed account of a consequential day in Hong Kong history. Digital or not, online or print, that is what newspapers are supposed to do.