The all out war on SARS has been going on for more than a month. In this bitter battle, which we must not lose, the mass media's capability to fight together has already become the focus of attention of both government and the public. A comprehensive view of the situation shows that the question of whether the news media will be able to play a more central role in this war is crucial to the eventual success of these prevention efforts.
From the beginning of the prevention effort until today, the news media have, just like frontline medical staff, played a crucial role as frontline observers reporting the situation and integrating the opinions of agencies participating in the battle and in the logistics and support efforts. Their hard work and the dangers they face cannot be appreciated by outsiders.
Many people may not yet be aware of the fact that many of the "war zone" journalists hunting SARS stories have been unable to return to their homes or offices, and they still don't know how long this quarantine will last. When we discuss the quality of SARS reporting, it would only be right to first applaud and encourage the mass media.
Hard though it may be, it is still necessary to discuss the media's performance in handling SARS news.
First, some reports on SARS have been trying too hard to find drama in the news. For example, the tragic individual stories of the medical staff that have died while on duty have been constantly and widely reported. By comparison, the media aren't particularly interested in a comprehensive debate about whether medical resources have been put to proper use in the battle to rein in the epidemic.
Another example: while the responsibility for the Hoping Hospital fiasco around the time it was being sealed off has not yet been clarified, several reports have already adopted dramatic methods, describing certain people as having ulterior motives and playing a negative role, or as being upright heroes saving peoples' lives.
They have not, however, been able to discuss the systemic aspects of the chaos in the command system and the lack of fighting experience that was so suddenly exposed after Hoping Hospital was sealed off. Similarly, several reports have described the incongruous opinions of the central and local governments as a highly dramatic conflict, but they have not been able to systematically report how the prevention efforts of central and local governments could be integrated or submit a set of effective suggestions.
Second, the media have spent a lot of time on daily follow-ups on the status of the epidemic, but they have failed to produce a series of reports discussing how to effectively contain the epidemic from a comprehensive systemic aspect. Hence, we can see daily fragmentary reports focusing on where the epidemic has occurred, but we cannot rely on the media to supervise and follow the development of each planned measure for fighting the epidemic.
In other words, so-called SARS news shouldn't merely tell the public where new suspected cases have occurred. They should follow the whole issue, monitoring daily whether each preventive measure that should be implemented by the government or the public is being implemented.
Third, when reporting on SARS, the media should of course pay particular attention to the veracity of information. As part of the epidemic-prevention system, the media should perform the final check on information. Even though some of the information is coming from government officials, it isn't necessarily correct.