Thu, Jul 17, 2003 - Page 3 News List

Media drops the ball on coverage of SARS outbreak

CHECKING THE FACTS Ratings grew significantly during the SARS epidemic, but the media did not see such enthusiasm turn into more advertising revenue

By Roger Cheng  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Although Taiwan has been removed from World Health Organization's list of SARS-affected areas, the debate over where to draw the line between the public's right to know and journalistic sensationalism continues.

According to a poll conducted by the Broadcasting Development Fund on May 2, around 65 percent of the 1,093 respondents polled thinks SARS-related news reports were "overly sensational," while nearly 30 percent said the news reports highlighting the SARS crisis was unbearably repetitive.

The SARS outbreak erupted in Taiwan in mid-April.

The fund's chief executive Lu Shih-Hsiang (盧世祥) said it's totally understandable that people do not want to put up with around-the-clock news about a frightening virus.

"With over six news channels on the air in this country, it's quite beyond doubt that speed has outpowered accuracy in an extremely competitive TV news industry," Lu said.

Lu added that what really matters to the public in this kind of situation is accurate information.

Lin Tian Chiung (林天瓊), head of the news desk at Eastern Television, stressed that the media's top priority is to inform people of what is going on.

"We had to spare no effort when informing the viewers about the latest SARS-related developments," Lin said.

Lin dismissed the survey's results and said that he was trying so desperately to moderate the public's fear of the virus by making news stories which featured lucky people who had conquered the virus.

Paul Tsai (蔡滄波), head of the news desk at the Formosa Television, said the media, in particular TV stations, didn't perform very well when reporting about the SARS epidemic.

"Taiwan's TV news industry lacks a basic awareness of the ABCs of good journalism," Tsai said.

Tsai suggested that the media should have spent more time putting checking facts and double checking facts to ensure their accuracy.

Tsai said that TV stations, after their poor performance covering the SARS epidemic, should have learned that they need to hire professionally trained reporters whose expertise is in the medical field.

"It's imperative that my reporters get some medical training before the next fatal bug comes along," Tsai said.

Tsai's ideal news team to better cope with a SARS-like virus would include medical experts who could clearly explain the latest developments, and well-prepared journalists who are able to provide most comprehensible reports.

After the SARS outbreak, academics and journalists are beginning to question the longtime belief that blood, fear and tears will pump ratings, and in turn, lead to more ad revenue.

Based on data released by the AC Nielsen rating company on May 28, overall TV ratings rose to 11.4 in May, notably from 10.28 in January.

Evening news programs saw ratings grow from 0.48 in January to 0.53 in May.

"It's too bad the higher ratings did not bring in more ad revenue," Tsai said.

Tsai said that when a TV station covers a topic as volatile as SARS, it would be unwise or even asinine to try to attract advertisers by spicing up the stories.

Hsu Mei-ling (徐美苓), a journalism professor at National Chengchi University, argued that if the ratings did not translate into revenue, then journalists should take the opportunity to work on improving their craft when the next newsworthy disaster rocks Taiwan.

Claire Hsiao (蕭慧芬), a reporter at FTV, still optimistically believes that the media will get back on track.

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