Questioning media involvement in Toronto SARS outbreak

Did the media turn the SARS story into a crisis?

Certainly, media coverage of the SARS outbreak in Toronto helped shape public perceptions about the severity of the crisis, say two York professors in a study released Oct. 29. The pair held a news conference to announce their findings (see York in the Media).

For their study, “Media Coverage of the 2003 Toronto SARS Outbreak”, Professors Seth Feldman (left) and Daniel Drache (right) looked at 2,600 newspaper stories written in the spring of 2003 and found that the outbreak of SARS in Toronto received saturation coverage at key moments throughout the 91-day period. While predominantly fair, say Drache and Feldman, the coverage helped send a message to the world that SARS was out of control in the city.

The findings are based on a detailed analysis of 1,600 Canadian and American newspaper articles from the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, National Post, USA Today and New York Times running from March 16 to June 15, 2003.

Feldman, director of York’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, and Drache, associate director, received support in the creation of the study from the Canadian Media Research Consortium and Cormex Research.

The severity of the SARS crisis was largely defined by the quantity of the news coverage, said Feldman, adding, “This study demonstrates the need to strike a balance between the medical realities of an epidemic and the media’s use of saturation coverage.”

At key moments, such as the initial outbreak, the release of the World Health Organization (WHO) travel advisory and the second outbreak, Drache noted that media coverage jumped three to four times the average level with each paper printing as many as 25 articles a day about the SARS crisis.

The report also makes a number of key observations regarding comparisons of Canadian and US stories, and health versus political realities, with implications for crisis management and information flows in the new global context. Among these:

  • US media didn’t differentiate Toronto from other SARS-affected areas such as China;
  • This ‘lumping in’ created the impression risks were higher here than they actually were;
  • American coverage mirrored the Canadian press giving prominence to the health story over economic/political stories;
  • Although economic coverage gained substantial ground following the WHO travel advisory, the health story was diminished but remained the “big story”;
  • Differences existed in the focus of criticism for the SARS crisis between the major dailies studied. The National Post tended to be most critical of the federal Liberals, the Toronto Star of the provincial Conservatives, while The Globe and Mail apportioned the blame equally between provincial and federal governments;
  • The provincial government in Ontario was criticized more than any other level of government;
  • US media reported nearly twice as often (27 per cent) as Canadian media (14 per cent) on research on the disease, and failed to consider the impact of the disease on the health system in Canada.