SARS and‘Glocal’Reporting

Hong Kong press has concluded its handling of SARS crisis with a sense of triumph.
The SARS crisis in the spring of 2003 harshly exposed the fragility of Hong Kong’s geo-cultural and political predicament six years after our fateful reunification with China. The epidemic outbreak threw us back into the troubled waters of ambiguous dependency characteristic of our own peculiar existence, with one foot in China, a second in globalism, and a third in a localism that is getting more and more difficult to define. We may say the past six years have been years of atypical postcoloniality; everyday life felt like it was suffering from a severe acute recession syndrome.

During the epidemic episode, however, an emboldened press in Hong Kong worked around the clock with uncharacteristic vigilance, to chronicle the daily development of the SARS crisis, weaving a local narrative with regional and global implications. Emerging from this is a new form of “information” engendered by crisis journalism that we must learn to decipher. Like other global or potentially global epidemics, SARS is a reality with two parallel tales: there is the viral epidemic evident in epidemiological and clinical accounts, and then there is an epidemic of meaning -“infodemic”- evident in the rhetorics, symbols, and cultural frameworks provided by the media. As a navel gazing exercise, the local press has thus far concluded its handling of the crisis with a sense of triumph.

This good news has been backed by a number of realizations. The press has been recognized for its ability to monitor the clinical development in times of official reluctance or indecisiveness and to coordinate many “self-rescuing” social, civic, and charitable initiatives. Since the government released the report of the investigative team on SARS on October 2, 2003, the press re-engaged again, kicking in high gear to gauge public reaction in order to ascertain the validity - and implied ethics - of the report. Television has been praised for its role in humanizing the epidemic. Radio call-in programs have especially been acknowledged as a powerful space for sharing first-hand information, confirming or denouncing rumors and myths, voicing grievances (especially by nurses and other frontline medical staff), and expressing communal fear, bewilderment, and support. Other media forms, especially the internet and mobile phone, have also been seen as a giant, borderless network for a wide circulation of information and emotions, blazenly bypassing official channels. In short, the media, it seems, has doubled as detective, public health assistant, documentarian of the public’s voice, and even hacker of official machinery of information control all at once.

Politicization of Media

Triumphalism aside, the most critical question that emerged from the SARS crisis as far as the press was concerned has to do with the specific form and degree of politicization of the media in relation to post-handover Hong Kong. By most account, the sudden SARS crisis graphically exposed a way of life brought about by six years of change deeply marked by economic recession, psychological disorientation, and political disillusionment. How did the local media chronicle a “disease of governance” through its daily chronicling of the viral epidemic itself? More importantly, how did the media change governance?

I suggest that the narrating of the SARS crisis in the media took the form of “glocal reporting” that aimed a delicate balance of national, global, neighbourly, and local forces. Almost daily from mid-April to late June 2003, television broadcast on RTHK and TVB news settled on a reporting protocol, a territorial schedule of sort, that surveyed the overlapping infection zones in and surrounding Hong Kong. It started with the “forty-thirty routine” (the daily government press conference disseminating updates of the local epidemic), then hopped over to “hot spots” in the mainland, especially in the Guangdong region and in Beijing, which was then followed by a look at the situation in Taiwan. This mapping of the regional epidemics then converged on WHO’s new announcements, via a quick chronicle of outbreaks in other parts of the world, and then splitting into thematic focuses, especially the topic about new measures for border control between countries. This global tour of the epidemic would then round up with reports of the economic impact of SARS on different industries in Hong Kong. With this format, “glocal reporting” integrated “SARS in Hong Kong” into a concentric circle of inter-related outbreaks and inter-connected “remedies”.

Infodemic Model of Reporting

This “infodemic” model of reporting did two things. Briefly, first, at a practical level, it exposed the work of the government’s effort in public health control widely, through comparison and contrast with other governments in the region and their relative effectiveness. This amounted to building public pressure to monitor local governance. Second, at a wider level, it represented a sobering, even maturing moment for our public culture to clarify and sharpen some important categorical differences in the relationship Hong Kong has or can have with China and with the world.

The category of “fragmentation”, for instance, for imagining the status of Hong Kong in post-handover times, has proven to be not so useful. The outbreak, which has been widely reported as the deadly consequence of mal-coordination between Hong Kong and Guangdong, in fact rather ironically points to the inseparability of the two neighbour. Proximity urges reciprocity, and not fragmentation. The other more popular category has been “integration”. But integration cannot accurately describe Hong Kong’s bearings; the term lacks precision especially when integration is perceived by many Hong Kong people as forced integration. The truth is that even while Hong Kong has realigned itself spatially and economically with the nearby delta and inland regions, it has had a difficult time connecting itself ideologically with Beijing. For many in Hong Kong, the embarrassment of the great SARS cover-up in the mainland has meant, among other things, that integrationism is a dream we hesitate to have, even as it is a destiny too costly to defy. When the terms are clarified, then may be we can begin to focus on change.

Atypical Postcoloniality

Let us not forget that the whole SARS crisis in Hong Kong was overshadowed by a backdrop of political quarrels over the legislation of Article 23, a legislation that was widely perceived as a blatant disrespect of journalistic freedom. The spectre of censorship, or more accurately self-censorship, engendered by Article 23, was not a theoretical threat, and neither was “glocal reporting” a theoretical exercise about “speech-making”. Stemming from local concerns over national enchroachment of press freedom, “glocal reporting” also stemmed from global, universalizing demands for political openness and transparency. Lacing together the local, the neighbourly, the national, and the global, “glocal reporting” is a real practice shaped by blurred, overlapping, and mutually replicating zones of ideology. It is not linear or straight journalism. It is journalism that provides a new form of content and information dissemination decipherable only through the geopolitical landscape of our atypical postcoloniality. Ultimately, the spring of 2003 in Hong Kong replicates the summer of 1997, when the so-called “crisis of confidence” remains the same infecting agent of our public culture.

“Glocal reporting” is, in the end, a response to a city in fatigue, a city that yearns for reform and change. In a way, SARS gave us a window of opportunity, albeit experienced as crisis, for demanding change. At the time of this writing, just as the government’s appointed investigative panel issued its report on SARS(October 2, 2003), the fact that it backpadeled on naming officials who would be held responsible for mishandling the outbreak was another reason for the media-and our public culture at large-to demand change.
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