Global Issue, Local Coverage

Case Study: How different countries reported the classification of the H1N1 virus as a global pandemic.

The symptoms of H1N1 (also known as Influenza A or "swine flu") are similar throughout the world.  But newspaper coverage of the disease has differed across the globe.  Some countries have covered the story as a local one, others as a distant problem.  But the story has been global, and the story has had domestic consequences. The sources that news articles use help determine whether or not the focus is local or global and also, perforce, help set a political agenda.

On June 11, 2009, The World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the global outbreak of "swine flu" had become a "pandemic." The following day this announcement made newspaper headlines around the world. China’s leading English-language paper, China Daily, covered the story in an article entitled “WHO Declares First 21st Century Flu Pandemic,” and one of Mexico’s leading newspapers, El Universal, titled its story similarly: “WHO: Flu A, The First Pandemic of the XXI Century.”  Although the two papers' coverage of the announcement was quite similar, the way the papers relayed the information was very different.  The main difference in the stories was the number of sources each used, and perhaps even more importantly, the nationality of those sources.

In the weeks prior to WHO's declaration, Mexico had already been reeling under the "swine flu" outbreak and been covering the disease extensively.  A familiar source in the national news had been Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos, the Health Secretary, who consistently reported on the severity of the swine flu and the precautions Mexican civilians needed to take.   When WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic, El Universal’s primary source was once again Villalobos. In the June 12 edition of the paper, El Universal quoted Villalobos saying: “Mexico should strengthen and renew their commitment to preventive measures and proper action in the presence of the disease.” He then went on to say that as far as he was concerned “ …the epidemic of H1N1 influenza in Mexico is over, it is controlled and has become an endemic phase, characterized by isolated outbreaks.” The Secretary of Health’s reports were considerably less alarming than the reports emerging from other countries. At this point Mexico had dealt with the swine flu long enough to recognize that by taking the right precautions and safety measures the flu could be contained, and this recognition was reflected in Villalobos's assessment.

After the declaration of the swine flu “pandemic” on June 11, the China Daily next day published an article, which focused primarily on the effects swine flu was having in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Unlike the article in the Mexican newspaper, China Daily quoted multiple sources, including Margaret Chan, WHO Director General; the Mexican Health minister, Villalobos, and U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. China Daily both quoted Villalobos saying the virus was "under control in Mexico" and Ban Ki-Moon as saying;  "We must guard against rash and discriminatory actions such as travel bans or trade restrictions.” But China Daily also emphasized Margaret Chan's assessment that while the virus was "pretty stable," the possibility of an outbreak occurring again was not impossible. The article had no direct reporting about or sources from China. The sources used focused on the outbreak in other countries.

The article in China Daily used multiple sources as references, which gave its article a more global perspective on the disease. Mexico’s newspaper, El Universal, only referenced one source, which was national.  The choice of sources by both papers limited the information people received about swine flu--and therefore the opinions they could form. 

Why did the papers select the sources they did? Did the Mexican paper only covering news in its own country to stop the spread of panic among the public? Was the Chinese paper trying to avoid coverage about their country in order to frame the pandemic as something that would only happen to others?  What did the Mexican public think? What did the Chinese public think? What do you think?