International Journalists’ Perspectives: Covering Outbreaks in Indonesia, China, Germany

How do you investigate cultural and political factors in the efforts to contain influenza as a foreign correspondent? How do you cover an infectious disease outbreak in a political system that does not want the world to know? What do you do when you realize officials are using you, the journalist, to make sense of each others preparation and response plans? In this chapter, three journalists discuss their experiences in Indonesia, China and Germany.

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Alan Sipress, Staff Writer, The Washington Post, formerly based in Jakarta:
  Avian flu: So much more than a medical and public health story »
  Investigating improper use of antivirals in China »
  Journalists and epidemiologists share many skills »
Lu Yi, Senior Reporter and Editor, Sanlian Life Weekly, China:
  Reporting SARS for China’s Largest Newsweekly »
  How to bypass censorship »
  When tricking the system leads to pay-cuts »
Harro Albrecht, Medical Writer/Reporter, Die Zeit, Germany:
  When the journalist becomes a facilitator »
  Why we have to repeat difficult messages »

Alan Sipress, Staff Writer, The Washington Post, formerly based in the Post’s Jakarta bureau:

Avian flu: So much more than a medical and public health story

Pandemic flu is actually much more than a medical or public health story.
In 2004, when we realized at the Post how serious of a threat bird flu was, we decided to take a deeper and much broader approach to the topic: we explored the economic and social changes that created conditions for pandemic and looked at the cultural and political factors that were hamstringing efforts at containing it.
There were several virtues in taking this broader approach:
- It played to the advantage of being a reporter on the ground in Asia.
- The Post was able to interject new information into the international discussion about bird flu that wasn’t otherwise widely available. Other reporters were much better positioned than me to cover new research or CDC findings or European Union policy debates.
- By focusing on the broader trends and the deeper dynamics, I didn’t have to get caught up with trying to confirm each new case or each possible mutation in the virus that, in most cases, wouldn’t have been of much interest to our generalized readership.
- We could publish what I believe were compelling and often front-page stories without having to tell our readers that a pandemic was imminent that, of course, we have no way of knowing.

Investigating improper use of antivirals in China

For example, we wrote a piece about China’s improper use of the human antiviral drug amantadine in treating livestock, which helped make this drug ineffective in treating humans infected with some strains of the virus. We wrote about Indonesia’s long record of covering up and then ignoring the virus and the utter fiasco of Indonesia’s effort to vaccinate poultry against the disease.
There are real advantages to being a Westerner, especially an English speaker, in covering this story: I had access to many international experts who many local officials and academics were reluctant to contact; and I was at home with many resources that are available on the Internet, weather it’s ProMed or academic journal Web sites.

Journalists and epidemiologists share many skills

I might not have the specialized training of an epidemiologist, but in many ways journalists and epidemiologists share many of the same skills. What we may lack in public health training, we make up for in freedom of action. For instance, WHO investigators are often constrained by the relationships and the requirements imposed on them by host countries. We’re not. So, at times, we can go to the scene, ask questions that international health investigators aren’t able to, as much as they’d like to, and report findings that may be diplomatically difficult for international officials to disclose in public.

Lu Yi, Senior Reporter and Editor, Sanlian Life Weekly, China:

Reporting SARS for China’s Largest Newsweekly

In China, there are three challenges for us in covering disease outbreaks: Can we do it? Should we do it? How do we do it?
We have censorship in China. And it comes in three different types:
1. We have “blowing in the wind” meetings when editors of magazines or newspapers attend meetings at the propaganda department twice a week. They receive a list of topics that would be better not to report. Sometimes, you can imagine, SARS and avian flu are on this list. If you want to report those topics, then you better do it this way, not your way.
2. At many newspapers and magazines, there are editor meetings every week to discuss which story could be the cover story or which new story could be the special feature. After that, we have to report all those topics we discussed in this meeting to the propaganda department and, if they feel you should not be working around this story, then you just stop.
3. The third type of censorship happens just before you publish your story. Although you’ve already finished, before you publish it you have to send the layout to the propaganda department, and the people there will check it. If they think this story is not suitable for publishing, they will just ask you to change it. Sometimes stories tend to go nowhere.
Because we rely on newsstand sales, our cover story is very important. If it cannot sell, it’s a big problem, and people in China just don’t care much about science and public health issues. So many Chinese news media, including independent magazines and newspapers, don’t want to report on SARS, in part because it’s highly risky; they will risk being shut down and also sales are not so good.
We are very lucky; my boss is open-minded and just too good to be true. The editors there have this passion for science, for public health, and they believe in enlightenment and education. So we have a big portion of science and public health reporting, with three staff science writers at our magazine, the most for a weekly magazine in China.

How to bypass censorship

So how do we report these stories?
- First we have to bypass the censorship. If we cannot discuss a topic, can we interview this person involved in this program? We do a profile of a person, and sometimes it will pass the censorship.
- We also try to interview foreign scientists and foreign experts who are willing to tell true stories, rather than lie.
- And if I cannot run a story in China, maybe I can go abroad to run some similar stories in South Asia. I went to Thailand to write HIV stories, because although we are the first Chinese magazine that discussed the HIV epidemic in Hunan Province, after that to keep running these stories we had to go to Thailand or somewhere else.

When tricking the system leads to pay-cuts

In 2003 we did a story on SARS, and it was a very big issue because we were the first Chinese magazine who dared to use Dr. Jiang Yanyong’s picture on our cover. Before that, Time magazine had interviewed him, but no Chinese media dared to interview him or to publish anything about him and about the SARS epidemic. [Dr. Jiang Yanyong is the Beijing physician who in April 2003 publicized the government’s cover-up of the SARS epidemic in China.]
We have no problem connecting with him, because we have his phone number, and we know where he lives. The problem is that we cannot interview him because he lives in the military neighborhood and there are soldiers outside the neighborhood, so we have to pretend to be his family. We interviewed him in his son’s home, and he told us that before he wrote letters to Western news organizations, he also wrote several letters to other Chinese media such as People’s Daily and CCTV. “Nobody at these news organizations dared to do this story,” he said to us, “and I just don’t want to waste my time to talk with you and there’s no story.”
 We used some tricks to have this cover story published. At the wind-blowing meeting, we pretend we’ll run another cover story and, just one day before it comes to publish, we change our cover story and publish his picture on the cover. We saw that the magazines were delivered to newsstands in Beijing; if you run bad stories about the government, sometimes they recall the copies, and we don’t want that to happen.
I should also say that after we published this magazine, we were punished. They sent us a new chief editor, and our original chief editor was deprived of making the final decision about the cover story and our salaries and incomes were cut about in half. That situation continued until early 2005.

Harro Albrecht, Medical Writer/Reporter, Die Zeit, Germany:

When the journalist becomes a facilitator

The first lesson for us, as reporters, is that we play a very important role as facilitators between different authorities in our country. In Germany, there’s a struggle between federal institutions and state institutions, and I found myself in situations where I had to facilitate and critique one to the other as I bundled information in one place. After a while, people would be asking me, “What is this guy saying? We sit together on the commission, but we’re not talking to each other.” So I’d be telling them what the other person is doing and found myself in all kind of weird situations.
Once avian flu had made to Europe in March 2005, I started to ask questions about how well the national pandemic plan was working. I asked people in all 16 federal states, went to several hospitals and talked with other officials. I asked authorities who had Tamiflu available for 30 percent of their population what they were going to do if the people from five or six other regions came knocking on their doors—coming to them from places that had Tamiflu for only five percent of its citizens. And the blunt answer was, “I think it might be good to travel during that time.”

Why we have to repeat difficult messages

The messages about all of this are very, very difficult, and I have to keep repeating them again and again, telling people that a seasonal flu shot is not protecting against the common cold and is not protective against the new virus that is approaching. Though we have seasonal flu vaccines, it is not that easy to produce a similar vaccine against a virus that is marching toward our area. I have to repeatedly write it and write it and write it over and over, and that’s what I’ve done.

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