This article describes the personal experience of a frontline reporter in a city in Hubei in the coronavirus epicenter. We will call him Chen to protect his identity.
How should the media handle the coronavirus epidemic and what is its primary responsibility? Most people understand that it should play a role in public opinion and focus on reporting about the prevention and control of the epidemic. The Chinese government, by contrast, ordered the state-run media to only report “positive news.”
In such an environment, reporters who embrace the principles of ethical journalism would find themselves caught up in a difficult and painful moral dilemma as they cannot report the truth. Due to the severity of the outbreak worldwide, only reporting the true situation can save people by giving them the information they need to make informed choices about their daily lives.
Chen works for a daily newspaper in a city in Hubei. He has been in the post for six years. On the eve of this lunar New Year just after his reunion dinner in his hometown, he received an urgent call to return to his unit to be on emergency standby. At that time, the total number of confirmed patients in the city was among the top four in Hubei Province and was one of the hardest-hit areas.
Chen hurriedly returned to the city and took on the task of interviewing the frontline people, referring to reporters conducting on-site interviews and reporting, medical personnel, people in the local communities and government officials at a grassroots level.
On the third day of New Year, Chen visited the hospital for the first time to conduct interviews. Before leaving the hospital, he sent a report to his director incorporating three selected topics: (1) two doctors who are husband and wife working in the same hospital; (2) Chen’s visit to the hospital cafeteria to see how the medical staff and patients take their food and identifying the problems with the handling of food and tableware; and (3) shortage of protective supplies in the hospital and its call for support.
Chen’s three topics also delved into the spirit of the medical staff, the current situation in the hospital and solutions to problems. However, his director only picked the first topic to reflect a positive picture and turned a blind eye to the other two topics that spoke of problems and solutions.
For the first topic, the director even asked Chen to write that the couple is willing to “sacrifice their lives” after learning about the severe epidemic, even going so far as to declare their willingness in a letter affixed with their thumbprints using their blood.
This is a nod to the pledge of allegiance the Chinese people are forced to make with the Communist Party, which uses the bloody print to create a blood oath. It stands as a subtle reminder to those reading the fake news report that they must follow the control of the Party. Chen was further told to add in that the couple told their child: “Mom and Dad are going to the hospital to fight the virus monsters and will come back to play with you after the fight.”
The local media reporting in Hubei where Chen is posted is the same everywhere in China. Wuhan Evening News, for example, reported even more ridiculous news, such as a nurse going back to work 10 days after losing her baby through a miscarriage while she was in a lot of pain.
Wuhan’s Changjiang Daily interviewed a Wuhan citizen named Gao Yu who volunteered his transport free of charge to transfer medical staff to and from work. However, after the reporter prepared the story, the supervisor put the news aside. Why was that? The supervisor believed that the story about the transfer of medical staff by a civilian would tarnish the government’s image.
The more reports there were of good people and good things, the more Chen became concern: “As a reporter, I could find problems and solve them through reporting, but in reality, as it is now, the good news reports are not really good news as problems are being covered up, funerals of those who succumbed to the virus are being treated as happy events.”
Chen found that there are many problems in the epidemic prevention and control methods in the rural areas and he wanted to conduct an in-depth investigation and report. For instance, there are more than 700 households in the village where Chen is posted.
Many villagers returned from Wuhan, but there is only one clinic in the village. The only doctor in the clinic does not even have a mask. All the focus on epidemic prevention is on cities and the medical conditions in rural areas are seriously neglected.
Chen has been on the frontline for more than 20 days and is considering resigning from his post after the epidemic is over. His final words affirm his commitment to honest reporting: “Now is the time of disaster and I will stand by this last post. “I am willing to die for the principles of ethical journalism and do not want to live to write fake news.”
Translated by Chua BC and edited by Helen