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Date of Award

2005

Document Type

Thesis - Pacific Access Restricted

Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)

Department

Communication

First Advisor

Jon F. Schamber

First Committee Member

Qingwen Dong

Second Committee Member

Kenneth Day

Abstract

This study analyzed headlines in three influential newspapers to assess how those publications exercised media social responsibility in reporting the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The situation posed the common media paradox where inherent news values encourage dramatic reports and escalation of conflict that, in tum, are criticized as irresponsible. The particular circumstances surrounding the SARS outbreak presented an opportunity for media social responsibility through public education and conveying perspective about risk from the disease.

This study developed an analytical framework to evaluate the extent of fearful language, style of communication about risk of the disease, use of source material, and prevalence of journalistic normative behaviors. The analysis indicates that personal fear responses of journalists may influence the use of frightening language in news headlines. The study found that in early stages of reporting about the disease, journalists relied on overtly fearful language with little analysis or situational context. As the story became more familiar, even though the factual circumstances did not change, headlines revealed more efforts to communicate productively about risk and less use of explicit fearful terminology. However, most of the headlines demonstrated reliance on traditional news-gathering behaviors emphasizing conflict, controversy and human interest, rather than analysis and interpretation. Political controversy stemming from concerns about disease management by the Chinese government often prevailed over headlines representing socially responsible information about health protection or risk perspective.

This study affirms the importance of media in public education during health crises. It also suggests journalists would benefit from better understanding risk communication principles and the influence of personal fear responses on their reporting. Additionally, the study demonstrates that the concept of media social responsibility deserves to be reconsidered in contemporary terms, to better guide both journalists and those charged with developing communication strategies during such circumstances.

Pages

235

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