Disasters, and the coverage of them, often follow a pattern. First come the details, then the numbers, which inevitably grow with each successive report.

Eventually the rescue effort is examined and the shortcomings of the authorities, if there are any, revealed.

The media and our society is more controlled than before and the political atmosphere not as open as before.

Qiao Mu, associate professor, Beijing Foreign Studies University

That is not what happened in China when a cruise ship called the Eastern Star capsized in the Yangtze river on June 5, killing a reported 431 people.

Shortly after the news broke, journalists got their orders from Beijing, telling them not to travel to the scene, to rely on official press releases and state-run news platforms for information.

And the result was evident in the coverage - news outlet after news outlet publishing the same photos, painting the same picture, sticking to the same script, reporting the story Beijing's way.

China is a little more than two years now into the leadership of Xi Jinping. As the general secretary of the Communist Party, he has centralised institutional power, and his approach to the news media is consistent with that.

But controlling information in the digital age, with news consumers growing ever more discerning, is far from easy, even in China. 

Talking us through the methods and the limitations of China's media disaster management are: Jason Q. Ng, research fellow, The Citizen Lab; Sam Geall, editor,China Dialogue; Qiao Mu, associate professor, Beijing Foreign Studies University; and Li Hongwei, managing editor, The Global Times.

Source: Al Jazeera