SHANGHAI -- The savage beating death of a reporter has shone a rare light on the corrupt, money-driven underbelly of Chinese journalism, where many reporters take bribes to write good news and extort companies to suppress their dirty laundry.
President Hu Jintao has ordered a probe into the killing of China Trade News reporter Lan Chengzhang, who Chinese media say may have been trying to collect money from the owner of an illegal coal mine in return for not writing about the business.
Yet while the government condemns such behavior, journalists and academics say unethical practices are often prompted by official policies that exert tight political control on the content of publications while forcing them to struggle to bring in revenue.
"This is a complicated problem with deep institutional causes," said David Bandurski, a senior researcher at Hong Kong University's China Media Project. "News extortion is less of a disease than a symptom."
Hu's call for an investigation was extraordinary because the government usually doesn't publicly discuss problems with media, still officially hailed as the "throat and tongue" of the ruling Communist Party. Talking about bad press behavior could tarnish the party's image, while officials themselves often have their own reasons for covering up disasters and corruption.
Hu appears to have been prodded into action by Chinese media reports on the killing and a public outcry on the Internet chastising both greed within the news profession and the government's restrictions on media.
Lan's newspaper hasn't said whether it assigned him to report on the coal mine; no results of the inquiry into his death have been announced.
Lan died Jan. 10, a day after he was attacked by thugs on his way to meet with mine owner Hou Zhenrun in the northern city of Datong, according to Chinese news reports. Lan and a colleague were pummeled with iron bars and pickaxes, allegedly because Hou believed Lan, who had just been hired and had no official press card, was an impostor trying to shake him down.
The allegations recalled similar incidents in recent years. In one of the most notorious cases, the official Xinhua News Agency revealed in 2003 that 11 of its reporters had accepted gold bars in return for not reporting on a mine disaster that killed 46 people.
Media extortion is relatively common in China's mining industry, which is rife with illegal practices, but elsewhere press corruption is more subtle.
Reporters at news conferences are routinely offered envelopes of cash, ostensibly to cover travel costs but with the unspoken assumption they will write what the sponsor wishes to see.
Businesses also buy advertising to ensure positive coverage, often at the behest of reporters who are required by their employers to meet revenue quotas. Commissions can more than double a reporter's pay, which is often as low as $150 a month.
Media corruption is facilitated by the quasi-official status of reporters, who are seen by many Chinese as government functionaries with special authority.
Standards of professionalism are also difficult to instill in journalists who are constantly being censored or told what to write. But some media outlets with higher aspirations are imposing their own solutions.