(Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The coronavirus — officially now 2019-nCoV — is a story that demands the best of journalism. How to keep communities informed? Authorities accountable? Avoid panic?

Here’s how China’s Caixin gets to the heart of the story in an in-depth report:

How Wuhan lost its grip on thousands of suspected coronavirus cases … A shortage of hospital beds and a slow, bureaucratic diagnosis process led to many being sent home to infect their relatives.

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Nailed it.

Covering the virus story requires expertise and scale (this Caixin piece, the final of a now pay-walled four-part series, credited 23 journalist). And it’s proving too big for Australia’s traditional media to tell in its full complexity.

Australia’s media needs expertise (in epidemiology, on Chinese politics and society) and it needs resources to throw at such a big story. It needs to be able to trade on the Australian community’s direct links to China, and with Wuhan in particular.

The weakness of the media response — other than the ABC — is partly timing, partly the decade-long cuts to journalism numbers, and partly the traditional media’s failure to employ journalists that reflect an increasingly diverse Australia.

Australian journalists have deep links with China. George “Chinese” Morrison led reporting on the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the republic’s founding in 1911; Richard Hughes watched Mao’s China from Hong Kong (and was famously fictionalised in the books of both Ian Fleming’s Bond and John Le Carre’s Smiley). The major companies have had Beijing correspondents since The Sydney Morning Herald’s Margaret Jones in 1974.

But the virus has caught the major mastheads on the hop. Nine’s Kirsty Needham wrote about the end of her posting last month. The Australian’s newly arrived correspondent, Will Glasgow, has had to hit the ground running.

Local expertise has been co-opted by foreign media too. Australian reporter Chris Buckley is with The New York Times, and former ABC China reporter Stephen McDonell is at the BBC. Both have been reporting in (and now out of) Wuhan since January. Former SMH/Age correspondent Philip Wen now reports for The Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post bureau is headed by New Zealander (and, as an overseas success, honorary Australian) Anna Fifield.

US reporting has also been strengthened by the work of Asian-American journalists. The Washington Post’s Lena Sun brings experience as Beijing bureau chief to her current national reporter role, with a special focus on public health and infectious disease. NPR’s Emily Feng is available on the global health and development blog “Goats and Soda“.

The lack of diversity in Australia’s media, on the other hand, has resulted in careless renderings like The Herald Sun’s racist “Chinese virus” comment.

Despite audience interest and importance, health reporting in Australia’s commercial media has always been under-resourced (and under-valued). Coverage has been undermined by the job cuts of the past decade precisely targeted at the skill-set health reporting demands — experienced (and higher-waged) journalists.

Some remain, like The Australian’s Natasha Robinson, but none of the commercial media can scale the knowledge and resources of the ABC. 

Many once-were-traditional reporters are now writing for health start-up Croakey which offers “independent, in-depth social journalism for health”.

The strongest on-the-ground reporting is being produced by Chinese reporters, writers and bloggers like the ones working for the (more or less) independent Caixin. As ABC China correspondent Bill Birtles wrote last week, the Communist Party is cracking down on social media and signs of dissent — particularly focussing on the death of Wuhan’s whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang.

The South China Morning Post is using a focus on the political and scientific responses in both mainland and greater China as part of its ongoing attempt to build itself as the leading global English-language voice on China.

In Australia, social media has been stepping up. Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao is tweeting a daily Wuhan diary, in a modern-day version of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.

Other sources are Vision Times (which claims to be Australia’s largest independent Chinese-language media), through its editor Maree Ma. The recently-launched China Neican (co-editor Yun Jiang and Adam Ni) also released its latest brief overnight on how Chinese social media has reacted to Li’s death by using questions from his original police interview as a protest meme: “Can you do that? Do you understand?”

Sound like a meme for journalism.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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