Accuracy in Media

As recently as last week, the Chinese government is promoting the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus began in the United States, not in China as has been widely reported. BuzzFeed News covered Lijian Zhao’s role in promoting this conspiracy theory on Twitter. Zhao works as China’s deputy director-general of the Information Department of the country’s Foreign Ministry.

BuzzFeed News headlined the conspiracy theory controversy, “Chinese Diplomats Are Pushing Conspiracy Theories That The Coronavirus Didn’t Originate In China” and featured a photo of Zhao in the article. Zhao and another Chinese government official have proposed that the U.S. was the source of the coronavirus.

To its credit, BuzzFeed News noted that Zhao’s Twitter defense of the conspiracy theory was “a false conspiracy theory.” It also pointed out how this was an unusual tactic by the Chinese government to engage on Twitter instead of the heavily-censored Chinese domestic social media networks such as Weibo and WeChat.

However, BuzzFeed News did not acknowledge its past praise of Zhao’s use of Twitter to score political points. Four months ago in December 2019, BuzzFeed News published a favorable article about Zhao’s online trolling of the Trump administration. In that article, BuzzFeed News wrote that Zhao could be “the most interesting diplomat in the world” due to his “combative, bombastic, frankly Trumpy voice” on Twitter. The website added that Zhao “was in fine form this Thanksgiving” when Zhao tweeted an eight-part tweetstorm on American racism and mocking Trump.

BuzzFeed News should have acknowledged that it praised Zhao’s past tweets in its recent article about Zhao. It did correct the record on China’s conspiracy theories and debunked them, but neglected to mention how it interviewed Zhao in China last year and wrote a favorable article about him. For transparency and ethical reasons, BuzzFeed should disclose its coverage of Zhao from now on to provide readers with an accurate picture of how it handles Zhao and the Chinese government.

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