In theory, during outbreaks of infectious diseases, mass media plays a crucial role in providing timely and accurate information to the public about the risks and prevention measures regarding the epidemics. But during the recent public health crisis in China, where a novel coronavirus has killed dozens of people and infected thousands, most news publications in China have actually helped to cover up the spread of the deadly virus under pressure from health authorities. This is the view of veteran Chinese journalist Chén Jìbīng 陈季冰 in an article (in Chinese), originally published but since deleted by Tencent’s Dajia on WeChat.
Titled “Fifty days of Wuhan’s outbreak, Chinese people across the country are paying the price for the death of media,” the article begins with a personal story of Chen finding that his neighbor in Shanghai had been diagnosed with the disease after fleeing from Wuhan before the lockdown.
Chen points out that January 20 marked a watershed in the mass media’s coverage of the crisis. Prior to that day, most reports came from local news publications in Wuhan and the vast majority of them were created with the purpose of calming public fears. The main theme, as Chen noted, was that the virus was “mildly dangerous” and the spread was “controllable.”
Chen suspects that the underreporting of the crisis before January 20 was due to a series of political meetings in Wuhan during that time, as local newspapers possibly received orders from a higher authority to reduce its coverage about the outbreak. This theory is confirmed by other commentators.
After January 20, newspapers based outside Wuhan started to report on the virus, but things didn’t get much better. “In a nutshell, the main goal of news outlets in this period of time switched from ‘comforting’ to ‘inspiring’ and making the public feel ‘touched’ by some heroic deeds of medical workers,” Chen wrote. “The one thing most publications had in common is that they did nothing that they were supposed to do as responsible entities.”
Chen also criticized the government’s lack of transparency. Chen cites an example of Caixin reporter Wáng Héyán 王和岩, who complained on social media that a number of doctors and medical workers in Wuhan had declined his requests for interviews due to “pressure from higher-ups.” Chen blamed local governments’ obsession with “maintaining peace on the surface level,” he wrote. “The practice of burying one’s head in the sand results in the accumulation of social conflicts, which are manifested in major crises like the Wuhan outbreak.” Chen did however praise Caixin and Dingxiang Doctor (a health information exchange platform) for their in-depth and informative coverage of the epidemic.
In 2018, Chen published an article (in Chinese) lamenting the slow death of traditional media, raising concerns about how the lack of attention to this trend would lead to dreadful consequences. In that piece, Chen worried that the country would suffer miserably when facing another public crisis like SARS in the future because of the restrictions on media freedom. Two years later, Chen writes: “Unfortunately I called it.”
Chen’s article was widely shared on social media before being removed, garnering more than 100,000 views and a slew of comments praising the author for questioning the role of news media in this difficult time. “It’s so rare to see a journalist who speaks the truth nowadays,” an internet user wrote.