SARS Infects News Planning

Apr 28, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Assignments to cities such as Hong Kong or Beijing, once considered exotic and prized, now are largely seen as hazardous duty, just like assignments to war zones. That means an assignment that takes a journalist to or keeps a journalist in a region significantly impacted by SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is voluntary and can be refused without fear of professional penalty.

ABC News correspondent Josh Gerstein last week was reporting from his Beijing home after he and his crew of local hires flew back from a trip to Guangdong, the region considered the birthplace of the fast-spreading virus, on a plane bearing what Mr. Gerstein described as “a suspected SARS case.

“I’m feeling fine, no fever or anything like that, but the authorities don’t want us to go back [to the bureau] for a couple of weeks. In fact, they want to have that whole office decontaminated,” he said when he filed a report from his living room for last Friday’s Good Morning America.

“I would never ever send anyone to a place where there are health issues without them volunteering,” ABC News’ Director of Foreign News Chuck Lustig said.

ABC has at least temporarily relocated Mark Litke from Hong Kong to Bangkok for multiple reasons. His children’s schools have been closed in Hong Kong, where, if the kids were to be quarantined, they would be separated from their parents. Bangkok has instituted more stringent public hygiene measures and is likely to continue to offer more travel flexibility, which is important to a journalist covering a sprawling, headline-making region.

“Hong Kong represents greater risk because it is a more condensed city. Beijing has managed to keep more victims in hospitals by quarantining them,” said a spokesman for CNN, which has a large Hong Kong production center headed by CNN International Asia Pacific executive Ian MacIntosh, and a Beijing bureau headed by Jaime FlorCruz and staffed by a handful of people.

It can be disconcerting to see a TV report in which the correspondent is one of the few people not wearing a protective surgical mask.

“Remember: most of those people walking around in masks are not victims,” said Mr. Lustig. “They are taking protection.”

The informal policy at U.S.-based TV news operations is to encourage staff to use common sense and follow the local lead.

Or as one news executive put it: in hospital without masks, “stupid”; on streets without masks, “not so stupid.”

A CNN spokesman said, “It is an individual choice, not company policy” about what precautions to take.

CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen is based in Tokyo but has traveled to China to report on SARS, said in an e-mail last week, “We wore masks where there were crowds or there had been a known SARS outbreak. We washed our hands. A lot. Maybe 10 or 20 times a day, after being outside or even touching an elevator button in the hotel. We monitored, and still do, the health of each other on the team and people with whom we came in contact-our driver, the Hong Kong `fixer,’ any main characters in the stories we did.

“We followed the advice of the Hong Kong government and avoided social niceties … no shaking hands, for instance. Air kisses in Hong Kong, as one woman told us, are now really air kisses,” Mr. Petersen wrote. “We kept our distance. You should stay 3 to 6 feet away from the next person. This wasn’t always possible, but when we could, we did.”

Like Mr. Peterson, Ned Colt, the NBC News correspondent who is based in both Beijing and Hong Kong, has appeared on camera with and without a mask.

“He uses what he believes to be reasonable safety in making the decision,” said an NBC News spokeswoman. Safety is always a primary concern for our people. In this case we have left Ned’s decision-making up to him, and we know he’s being prudent.”