Media Performance in the Early Stage of the SARS Outbreak

2003-11-15
Both the media and the community had taken an active role throughout the SARS crisis.
A special discussion on SARS reporting was presented during the News World Conference this year.
*An abridged speech to the News World Conference held in Dublin on October 22, 2003

As the world focused on the looming war crisis in Iraq, Hong Kong media were fighting two battles - the US-led war and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic. The Iraq War lasted for 43 days leading to 174 casualties, the SARS turmoil continued for 144 days and spread globally leading to 8,098 infected cases and 744 deaths. The Iraq War was actively involve less than a dozen countries, the SARS spread out to 29 countries, including Republic of Ireland.


Media Position

At times of crisis, academics say media plays a role in different phases. They are mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. At the early stage of SARS between February and March 25, media was unable to give warning to the public to help mitigate the crisis because of various reasons.

First, media attention was dominated by the budget and the "car-purchase" scandal surrounding the then Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung, and later by the Iraq War. On March 10, Hong Kong media reported the "Car-gate" prominently. The then Financial Secretary, Mr. Antony Leung Kam-chung was found to have bought a new luxury car before the tax increases for the vehicle registration in his Budget. The press report drew a huge public outcry and citizen’s telephone calls flooding into the radio talk show demanding his resignation. On March 15, Antony Leung apologized and revealed his intention to resign. March 17, Antony Leung added color into the scandal. When he was grilled by the Legislative Councilors, he said “love make him blind”. His wife, Fu Mingxia, three time Olympic diving champion, has just given birth and they need a family car. And Leung admitted that he paid the deposit for a Lexus six days after he chaired a budget group to proposing the car tax. These statements definitely drew the media attention.

The SARS outbreak began when it was revealed on March 10, 11 health care staff at Ward 8A in the Prince of Wales Hospital were on sick leave. The statement issued by health authorities was carried in a 30-second report in the late evening news bulletin of a major television station. Most of the media were not aware of the news release. Despite more evidence of a viral outbreak in Hong Kong, media coverage was dominated by the Iraq War between March 19 and 24. A local TV station dispatched half of its newsroom manpower and devoted two-thirds of its air-time to coverage of the war. It was until March 26 when hundreds of readers were evacuated at the Hong Kong Central Library because of a suspected SARS case among its staff that changed the media attention. In the same evening, 15 SARS cases involved seven households in Amoy Gardens were admitted to hospital.

RTHK news interrupted the horse-racing program three times and broadcast these breaking news events. From that date onward, SARS news dominated Hong Kong's media coverage for more than two months. Secondly, the tense relationship between the government and the media was to blame for the reluctance of officials to give more information on SARS to the media. Some officials are adamant the media has ridiculed Mr. Leung over the car-gate incident. They put media at an adversarial position and could not accept media as a partner at times of crisis.

Third, there was a general lack of medical and health knowledge among Hong Kong reporters. Journalism schools seldom provide specialized training on medical journalism. Senior health officials and experts, unfortunately, have not been trained to express themselves in plain language. It gave rise to some misunderstanding between officials and reporters, thus further straining their relationship. It was therefore noteworthy that the two reports on SARS – separately compiled by the SARS Expert Committee appointed by the Government and the Review Panel appointed by the Hospital Authority - came to the same conclusion that the government should team up with the media in combating health crisis. Throughout the SARS crisis, media and community have taken an active role in battling against the epidemic. The media have urged the Education and Manpower Bureau to close down schools to prevent the spread of the virus. The Government has imposed border checks only after strong pressure from media and the public. Medical and media professionals have strongly urged the administration to quarantine the relatives of the SARS patients and publicise the names of buildings where there were SARS cases. In face of the public health crisis, the relationship between journalists and officials has been characterised by "structural strain."

As media do not have expertise in health issues they have to rely on health officials as the major source of information even though they do not want to admit it. Many did not strongly challenge claims by officials that there was no community outbreak.

A dramatic development occurred on March 17 when the Dean of the Medical Faculty of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told the media in tears that the SARS had spread from hospitals to the community. Since then, journalists generally believed that the health officials withheld information from the public. Gradually, journalists turned their back from the government and sought for help from experts - the World Health Organisation, university medical professors and other community figures on a daily basis.


Trust-building

In its finding, the SARS Expert Committee admitted that "(The Hospital Authority's) communication with the public at the early stages of the epidemic was not very satisfactory, reflecting a lack of preparedness."

It said: "Much can be done to improve and prepare for any future eventuality. This involves building a level of trust within the community, by ensuring that professionals with appropriate expertise and seniority are properly trained in working with the media, that longer term partnerships are built with the media and that they are involved in the contingency planning process." The report concluded that "there were clearly significant shortcomings of system performance during the early phase."

The major deficiency of the system was the lack of mutual trust between the media and the government. Already at an adversarial position, the relationship between the government and the media has become more acute after the July 1 rally. Some members of the press have defined their role as "enabler" and "campaign facilitator" against the Administration on such issues as Article 23.

If government and the media fail to rebuild mutual trust, Hong Kong will be vulnerable when SARS hit again.
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