Three days after a Chinese cabinet official stepped forward to clarify the text of the draft emergency management law, the media’s role in reporting on emergency situations remains a live topic in the newspaper pages. In a page two piece today Southern Metropolis Daily continued its editorial defense of the role of media in informing the public about emergency situations, using the July 4 earthquake in northern China as a news peg. The editorial argues that media reporting is not at odds with the government’s need to control emergency situations and that media and government offices should compete to get information out as fast as possible:
“Reports on emergency events still mean racing against the clock”
Southern Metropolis Daily, July 6, 2006
On July 4 at 11:56am, an earthquake measuring 5. 1 on the Richter Scale occurred in Wenan in northern Hebei Province and shook the area of Beijing and Tianjin. At 12:16pm, 20 minutes after the quake struck, Xinhua News Agency issued a newsflash saying this was a sudden natural disaster. The news quickly spread across major websites, placed right across the top banner. At the first opportunity, China Central Television’s News Halfhour broadcast news of the Wenan quake.
After the quake occurred the media followed with prompt reports, quieting public fears about the disaster. However, in spite of the fact Xinhua came out with news 20 minutes after the quake, some people in the affected area still had stern words for the media. This is because within those 20 minutes, news and rumors about the quake were already speeding across the web and short messaging networks. The Beijing Seismological Bureau said it received several hundred phone calls to its five hotline numbers asking for information within a short time. Seen in light of the technological developments of our time, 20 minutes was still a step too slow, particularly considering the fear under which people passed that time.
20 minutes is plenty of time for an earthquake to destroy our cities and homes. In the people’s eyes, faced with such a broad and profound natural disaster, it behooves the media to report and respond with greater sharpness. If you consider that media must check the accuracy of information and obtain approval [NOT CLEAR: from government or media superiors?] then 20 minutes is not such a long time. But whether we can issue timely news releases within this gap of time — that is something we really need to talk about. At the same time, how we will face the release of information for these emergency events is a question for our whole society.
We are now in a high-level information age. The number of information channels by which people can access and exchange information about society are already multiplying at a tremendous rate. This situation means one of the critical questions for the government in dealing with emergencies is how to compete for speed with the rumors that spread while people aren’t yet clear about the situation. It can be said then that in releasing information about emergencies there is no such thing as too detailed or too fast. With these ordinary demands of society, trying to completely go by the old protocol of first asking for instructions, then looking into the matter, then making decisions cannot possibly yield effective results.
We should admit the fact that when emergencies occur, as government offices seek to enhance their power to control the emergency situation and effectively deal with the crisis, the result is very often an impulse, in handling of information about the emergency, is to monopolize information as relevant offices are under a mandate for tight controls. On the question of basic benefits in a traditional society [like China], there in fact is no conflict of interest between governments that need to get everything under control in emergency situations and participation by professional media. It does no harm to the public interest for both sides to scrabble to get out information as quickly as possible. Quite the opposite, this is beneficial competition that allows the true situation to unfold before the public as quickly as possible. The experience of many modern countries in dealing with emergency situations shows that it’s impossible for the government to play every role in the drama all at once [take on control of everything]. After emergencies occur governments [in such countries] never seek to monopolize information. Rather, they seek to get information out faster and with more accuracy than the media with the goal of offsetting false information.
The media are the most delicate sensory organs of any society. In facing emergencies like earthquakes, the media is totally capable of feeling out the situation and responding quickly, releasing information to the public as soon as possible and mitigating the social implications of obstacles to information. In the recent Wenan Earthquake, the media showed the public what it is capable of through its professional efforts. In the fast-paced world of modern media, 20 minutes is just a start. A report on the Wenan quake coming after 20 minutes just passes muster. As a society we need to shorten this time, and the government must continually attach importance to and study that 20 minutes.

[Posted by David Bandurski, July 6, 2006, 6:12pm]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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