Lessons from SARS Coverage: Arguably, This Coverage Changed Both the Government and Media in China

By Yu, Sun | Nieman Reports, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Lessons from SARS Coverage: Arguably, This Coverage Changed Both the Government and Media in China


Yu, Sun, Nieman Reports


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. …

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Lessons from SARS Coverage: Arguably, This Coverage Changed Both the Government and Media in China
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