Fri, May 09, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Sensational coverage a disservice, not a help

By Ku Er-teh 顧爾德

An agitated sociologist sent an e-mail to many friends: "Like a magic mirror that reveals demons for what they are, SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] is reflecting many unhealthy areas in the development of Taiwan's fledgling democracy. .... In particular, the electronic media have become a rumor mill with exaggerated reports on the epidemic. They have also become a major source of social unrest."

The academic keeps calling media institutions and correcting their reports. He also wants to know, "Is there anything substantial we can do in this time of crisis? In the past, when we were fighting authoritarianism, we often knew what we had to do. Now that the time to build a civil society has come, can we find a fulcrum point for action?"

Taiwan's media is working hard to cover the SARS out-break, but the more concerned one becomes, the more one fixes one's eyes on real-time news throughout the day. Anxiety and helpless build. Eighty percent of the news coverage does not provide useful, coherent informa-tion. None of the reports, for example, gave a clear description of how the decision to seal off Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital was made, or how the hospital interacted with the health authorities. All we see are sensational, fragmented accusations.

Such reports cause even more anxiety because the audience does not know what they can do in terms of helping others or protecting themselves. Many of the shocking reports are uncon-firmed. Of course, the media can say, "We are only faithfully conveying what we hear and see." Is there really no subjective selection process?

A newspaper headline proclaims, "Two more deaths." The report highlights the grief of family members unable to see the deceased for the last time and their threats to sue Hoping Hospital. Such reporting induces sympathy for family members unable to enter a dangerous place. Surely this is sensationalism.

The media have also given ample coverage to protests in Hsinchu against the transfer of SARS patients there, and those in Yunlin against the incineration of medical waste. No wonder Hsinchu Mayor Lin Junq-tzer (林政則) postured so audaciously.

Lin had reason to demand that the health authorities guarantee the safety of hospitals and residents in neighboring areas. But he chose to take to the streets instead of communicating via government channels. Such an approach might win votes, but who will take responsibility if the condition of the patient in the ambulance deteriorates while the protest drags on?

Would a politician who viewed human life as the top priority engage in such grandstanding?

The transfer of patients by the Department of Health certainly causes panic. And the way Taipei City handled the closure of Hoping Hospital triggered a great deal of fear.

Minister of the Interior Yu Cheng-hsien (余政憲) is concerned about the financial problems of people under home quarantine, so he wants to give a NT$5,000 subsidy to each one. That's NT$500 million for 100,000 people. If he has NT$500 million, why doesn't he use it to implement a mandatory evacuation of people living near the hospitals so that they will have no reason to protest? Was the NT$5,000 policy determined by electoral considerations?

Premier Yu Shyi-kun lamented, "Where is Taiwan's humanity?" Indeed, society must not tolerate behavior such as Lin's. But we should clearly understand that humanity has two sides: the self-serving and the altruistic.

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