Earlier this year Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was like a nightmare to many who live in China. SARS first appeared in China’s southern Guangdong Province late in 2003 and until February was still a regional epidemic. However, initial attempts to cover up the disease resulted in it spreading to Beijing and other provinces. Over time, a regional epidemic evolved into a national disaster.

This tiny virus caused China huge economic losses, far costlier than either the Asian financial crisis in 1997 or the flood disaster in 1998. Some experts conclude that SARS resulted in direct economic losses of 400 billion RMB yuan (48 billion dollars). Several international conferences planned for China were postponed or changed venues. The SARS crisis also exposed problems in China, such as the transparency problem behind the release of information to the public. Because media play such a critical role in getting information to the public, it is worth reflecting on what happened during SARS and what impact the media’s actions continue to have.

Coverage By Independent Media

In recent years, so-called “fringe media” publications have emerged in China. These fringe media are less controlled by government; these independent publications enjoy more autonomy than mainstream media and rely on the market for financial support. Therefore, their viewpoints are less influenced by the government propaganda machine. During the SARS crisis, some of these publications conducted in-depth investigations of the disease and its impact and delivered exclusive reports with unique angles. This gave them a golden opportunity to further establish their status as watchdogs.

The independent Caijing magazine led in reporting SARS. Unlike its counterparts in the mainstream media, Caijing Magazine started to cover SARS as soon as February, long before the Chinese government acknowledged the scale of the disease and before other media in the country were reporting on it. Caijing published many investigative reports about SARS, such as stories about large-scale SARS infection incidents in hospitals and Shangxi, the affected area. Hu Shuli, founder and managing editor of Caijing Magazine, believed the news of SARS involved issues of government transparency, and the signficance of these issues meant that the story had to be reported.

In an interview with World Press Review (WPR), Hu Shuli reflected: “Although at the time [in February] the disease was hardly mentioned in any Chinese media, I was quite sure that an epidemic like SARS could hardly be covered up. So I decided to start by reporting about the disease in Hong Kong. When I saw on the Web site of the World Health Organization on March 12th that the number of cases in Guangdong had jumped from zero to 792, I knew I had real news …. We assigned a group of four reporters to cover SARS at first and then put an entire desk of 10 people on the reporting. Finally, we put more people on the story and produced four special weekly issues on SARS in addition to our normal publications.” Hu was named WPR’s international editor of the year for her magazine’s probing and comprehensive coverage of SARS.

Another leader of the country’s fringe media is the 21st Century Business Herald. On May 1st it published a SARS special edition of about 30 pages—normally newspapers only have four pages. From that point on, the Business Herald published investigative stories or editorials about SARS in almost every issue. On May 8th an editorial appeared saying that fighting SARS should depend on science and warning the local government not to take extreme approaches. On May 15th it published a series of investigative reports about the SARS infection situation in Inner Mongolia, Anhui, Hebei and rural areas of other provinces, analyzing the problems and solutions of the nation’s marginalized rural medical system.

Media Coverage in English

China’s news reporting in English serves as a window for the outside world to understand China. Since it caters to foreigners, in general, this coverage tends to be more open. One advantage of news reporting in English is that it can draw on foreign experts’ viewpoints, which makes the reporting more balanced. With SARS, China’s media in English did probing analysis and sometimes went in front of the Chinese news media.

In April and May, the English-language program of China Radio International, “People in the Know,” invited foreign and domestic experts to give independent analysis of topics related to SARS. On April 14th, at a time of increasing public panic in Beijing, “People in the Know” interviewed David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. He was able to explain risk analysis and inform the public about why they should not overreact to the disease. His interview was among the first to send a calming message to the public.

Ropeik explained that because SARS was a new disease, members of the press were focusing much attention on it. By doing this, the public’s perception of the risk it poses was increasing even though other epidemics, such as influenza, were resulting in far more deaths than SARS. Ropeik said that people should take precautionary measures, but they should behave rationally and not panic.

China Features of Xinhua News Agency reported on many SARS stories for foreign media, such as Science, WPR, and Inter Press Service. This reporting helped foreign readers get a better sense of the real China during and after the SARS crisis. Xiong Lei, managing editor of China Features, and her colleagues worked together with Science reporter Martin Enserink to cover the research on SARS in China and reported how mainland Chinese researchers missed the chance to be the first in the world to announce findings of the coronavirus—the real killer of SARS victims—because they were very cautious and thought that by announcing it they would not be respectful to other experts.

In July 2003, the article “SARS is Making a Change” was published in the WPR, and in it Xiong Lei described in blunt language the politics of silence and change of bureaucratic mentality that has occurred during the SARS epidemic: “The dumping of these two officials [the mayor of Beijing and the minister of health], regarded as guilty of holding back information relating to the spread of the epidemic, is expected to change China’s old bureaucratic mentality. Before, many government officials would cover up anything deemed ‘negative,’ whether it was news about the collapse of a coal mine or a case of massive food poisoning …. SARS has shattered the philosophy among some bureaucrats that silence on negative topics might sustain their power.”

The Role of Western Media

In its initial stages, the Western media beat its Chinese counterparts in reporting the SARS crisis. However, some Chinese media specialists have criticized U.S. and other Western media’s exaggeration of the health crisis, claiming the coverage focused too much on negative aspects and mixed this medical crisis in with political issues. Just as the two governments—China and the United States—hold different views on many issues, the SARS crisis brought some of these differences to the surface.

David Ropeik, who was a broadcast reporter for 22 years, explained that one reason for this problem is that U.S. reporters tend to dramatize problems and overplay controversy to attract readers’ and viewers’ attention with headline-making news. John Pomfret, Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, said that Ropeik’s viewpoint has some credence, but he does not feel it’s the main reason. He argues U.S. reporters regard a part of their role as serving as a watchdog—watching what government does (and doesn’t) do to inform and protect the interests of the public. Erik Eckholm, who from 1998 to 2003 was Beijing bureau chief of The New York Times, agreed that some Western reporters tend by nature to give relatively more coverage to crises, corruption and emerging problems in society. He explained that the U.S. media’s job is, in part, to challenge and question everything, and this attitude might make some people in China feel that Western reporters are too hostile. However, he pointed out that U.S. reporters go farther in reporting bad news in their own country than they do in China. In his paper’s reporting on China, and the American press generally, Eckholm observed that in recent years there has been an enormous expansion in the range of topics covered, including more about what’s happening with young people, the arts, culture, social change, and the economy. He said, the goal should not be to provide a “positive” or “negative” image of China, but a fair and well-rounded picture of a society with many contradictions undergoing rapid change.

What SARS Teaches Journalists

Historically, the channels of information in China have been very limited, and it was very easy for the government to control the flow of information. With the Internet, chatrooms and short messages transmitted by cellphone, that kind of control is no longer possible. And when no information is released via official channels, its absence can cause the public to panic and rumors to spread. Therefore, it is very important for members of the media to deliver news accurately and in a timely manner. To do so will bolster public confidence in the government and prepare the public for emergencies.

In a May 18th interview conducted by “People in the Know,” Guo Ke, deputy dean of the College of Journalism and Communications of Shanghai International Studies University, analyzed the conflict between the role government perceives for itself and the media and how members of the media perceive their own role. On one hand, the government regards media as being part of it, or the government’s mouthpiece—to say what the government wants it to say or to defend its behavior and policies. Guo Ke suggests that one reason why China’s mainstream media overreacted in reporting about SARS was because news organizations were pushed by the relevant authority to cover the fight against SARS as a political task. On the other hand, many members of the media perceive their job as supplying information for the benefit of the public.

Guo Ke believes that the SARS crisis could serve as a wake-up call because it could prompt media to redefine its mandate and push for changes that will make the media’s role one of benefiting members of the public and society. He thinks media ought to grow more independent and be ready to criticize government officials, when it’s necessary. Given the Chinese media’s experience with the SARS crisis, it is reasonable to expect that more aggressive investigative reporting for public emergencies will exist in the future.

Since the first SARS case was identified last year, slightly more than 5,000 cases have been reported throughout the world, and most people afflicted with the virus survived. Meanwhile, each winter about 36,000 Americans die from influenza and 114,000 are hospitalized. However, as we witnessed, the outbreak of SARS caused an irrational fear in China, as well as in the United States and other countries. Some media experts believe the press played a large part in causing the spread of fear with this disease. Because of the virus’s newness, it received attention that more well-known and also deadly viruses no longer do. And this coverage made people more frightened of SARS than they needed to be. Putting such news into its proper perspective is a major challenge for journalists. SARS coverage can and should be used as an example of why threats of disease should be handled in a scientific way and how journalists’ coverage should not push the public into overreacting to the threat.

Sun Yu, a 1999 Nieman Fellow, was reporter and editor of the Chinese and English editions of China Environment News for 12 years. She was also editor of the Chinese edition of Fortune and executive editor of TimeDigest (the Chinese edition of Time). She is International Scholar at the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University this year.

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