Pandemic coverage and information gaps

April 27, 2020
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the US. Photo: NIAID-RML

For reporters who are bilingual in Chinese and English, the breaking news stories about COVID-19 that have occupied US media’s front pages aren’t so breaking. They have already seen the same headlines in China weeks, if not months, earlier.

A few weeks ago, major US media started to focus on the loss of smell and taste as a symptom of COVID-19. A March 22 New York Times headline read, “Lost Sense of Smell May Be Peculiar Clue to Coronavirus Infection”; similar headlines topped stories from CNN and the Washington Post, among others. That coverage was seemingly spurred by a statement authored by two ear, nose and throat doctors based in the UK, and a similar statement from a US-based otolaryngology academy. Some pieces built on the statement with recent anecdotal examples, such as a tweet from Rudy Gobert, the first NBA player tested positive for COVID-19, who wrote that “loss of smell and taste is definitely one of the symptoms.

Such coverage, in some cases, included references to similar symptom warnings from other countries. (“Earlier reports from Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus first emerged, had warned that ear, nose and throat specialists as well as eye doctors were infected and dying in large numbers,” the Times reported, paraphrasing one of the UK doctors.) Yet such symptoms had been raised in China weeks before—in anecdotal accounts, medical opinions, and media reports, including some in English.

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On February 3, a local television station in Wuhan revisited the experience of a COVID-19 survivor, whose “senses of smell and taste were significantly gone.” On February 14, a Wuhan government-owned local news website reported that the reduced senses were the only symptoms that a survivor in Macau had. Caixin, which is one of the most influential media publications in China, and which has been praised for its investigative reporting on the epidemic development, reported on February 27 that medical research in the country showed neurological manifestations of COVID-19, including the loss of senses. The research cited by Caixin was written in English and publicly available on medRxiv, a platform for pre-reviewed medical journals that has been frequently cited in news articles in the West.

Throughout this crisis, US media has effectively rediscovered issues related to COVID-19 previously covered by their Chinese counterparts. The disparity in timing likely owes to a number of factors—from the language gap, to a sense in the US that official media in China is unreliable. It may also owe to what Rui Zhong, a program associate for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, terms a “pragmatic information gap.” Reporters in the US were too focused on domestic issues, especially domestic politics, to give adequate play to actionable information, like the new symptoms or spreading methods of COVID-19 on the other side of the world, according to Zhong. 

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“At the time, international news offices could spend their time tracking the virus as a Chinese story or as a European story…but the national reporters’ radar is pretty much all election 2020,” she says. As a result, those readers who traditionally don’t consume news about China or Italy weren’t exposed to the extensive discussions about the coronavirus beyond the American border.

The possibility of infection by asymptomatic patients surfaced in Chinese media coverage as early as late January, prompting the national government to revise its official medical opinion to include asymptomatic patients as a source of infection. While a few US publications, including USA Today and the Washington Post, inserted this information in their coverage relatively early, it mostly didn’t make the headlines until early or mid-March. 

Similarly, the problem of coronavirus tests showing false-negative results was all over Chinese news in February. A renowned doctor told the state broadcaster on February 5 that from 50 percent to 70 percent of infected patients could receive a negative test result. The testing technologies, and coverage of the same, may have developed since early February; still, such concerns didn’t receive substantive attention from US domestic media until the end of March.

Last month, US newsrooms started to warn that, contrary to previous beliefs, young people were also susceptible to the coronavirus and could become critically ill. (Coverage of Florida spring breakers peaked around this time.) But the same observation had been reported in Chinese media far earlier, following the death of young doctors, including whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who died at the age of 34.

Tony Lin, a Beijing-born video journalist at Quartz who lives in New York City, worries such a delay may owe to a tendency to alienate Asian countries as the “other,” and not a worthy counterpart to learn from. Lin, like many other Chinese journalists working in the US, has used his social-media platform to translate updates about the epidemic into English. On March 6, Lin tweeted a thread of the social impacts he had seen in China—hospitals over capacity, mass unemployment, and disinformation about alternative medications—that might replicate themselves in other countries. Many on the list are now taking place in the US. 

“Journalists reached out to me and said, ‘I didn’t know it was going to be so bad until I read this thread,’” Lin says. “That’s very alarming.” It is possible to be both critical of the reliability of official data and rhetoric from the Chinese government, and also to give more credit to the experiences, clinical and otherwise, of ordinary people in China, Lin believes. “We have to look at China and Asia as a normal society just like ours, instead of looking at them as other or only looking at them as people ruled by authoritarian regimes.”

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Zeyi Yang is a journalist and podcast producer based in New York. He writes about immigration, race, LGBTQ, and everything related to China. You can find his tweets about Pokemon at @ZeyiYang.