March 2021

Message from Keith

The good news is that there is light at the end of our long, dark pandemic tunnel in the form of two new vaccines now available in Hong Kong. Finally, we can dare to imagine a return to something that resembles life as we knew it before the coronavirus—students back full-time in classrooms, restaurants packed late on weekends, bars humming, live events in full swing and no more Zooming.

But any return to normalcy requires moving quickly toward herd immunity, and that needs everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated. And herein lies the problem; far too many people are hesitant, opting to wait and see or not get vaccinated at all.

Part of the reason is distrust of the local government, an outgrowth of 2019 protests that exposed this society’s deep political polarisation. Some people don’t want to sign up to get vaccinated for the simple reason that the Hong Kong government is asking them to. Many others do not trust the efficacy of the China-supplied Sinovac vaccine.

There are some legitimate concerns. Normally a new vaccine is years in development and is tested on millions of people in multiple controlled test trials before being offered up to the general population. These new vaccines against Covid-19 came about in less than a year, and there are still unanswered questions—about how they might interact with other medications or preexisting conditions, whether they are suitable for the very old and very young, their efficacy against new virus variants and the possibility of becoming infected or passing the virus on to others after being vaccinated.

Then there is the fake news floating around, the misinformation and deliberate disinformation that is causing confusion and alarm. For example, there is the false report that the BioNTech vaccine changes your DNA makeup. And there is the conspiracy theory on Twitter, debunked by our student fact-checking team at the Annie Lab, that Chief Executive Carrie Lam did not really receive a Sinovac jab because the syringe seen in her photo-op appeared different from one used normally with a Sinovac vial. There are also rumours circulating that the government intends to swap the BioNTech vaccine for the less effective Chinese-made version.

Here, journalists have a key role to play in helping educate the public. Debunking falsehoods and fake news is one part, although busy reporters should not waste time going down every conspiracy rabbit hole.

Journalists also need to report seriously and soberly about possible vaccine side effects, and that means, for example, not hyping the story with big headlines every time someone dies or suffers an allergic reaction shortly after getting a vaccine jab. As a percentage, the number of people who have suffered adverse health after a vaccination has been minuscule, far less than 0.01%. Most of them were suffering from pre-existing conditions and there has been no scientific linkage between the few deaths and the vaccine. I could get a vaccine jab and be hit by a minibus while leaving the vaccination site—there’s just not any cause and effect there.

Journalists can also help educate the public by writing stories that address people’s legitimate questions and concerns. What are the guidelines for people in their 80s or 90s with pre-existing conditions? What about teenagers? And explain clearly the difference between the vaccine that uses the mRNA molecule, which it does, and manipulating the body’s DNA, which it does not.

Finally, journalists need to follow the science and listen to those who know. When questions arise, talk to the experts in epidemiology and public health, who are always more than willing to explain things. And rather than focusing too heavily on the rare cases of people getting ill from the vaccine, journalists need to keep reminding people that Covid-19 remains a lethal virus that has already claimed some 2.6 million lives.

Virus and vaccine coverage is too important to get wrong. Journalists need to step up to the task, and take seriously their role in helping educate the public.

Keith B. Richburg
Director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre

Alumni & Student News

Editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now and 2009 Master of Journalism graduate Ko Swe Win was interviewed by Columbia Journalism Review last month shortly after the military coup in Myanmar. Swe Win and his family left the country after he was shot while on holiday in November 2019. On March 8th, the military junta raided Myanmar Now's offices and revoked their license along with four other outlets—Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Khit Thit Media, and 7Day News.

Our career counselor Stephanie Chow organized a Zoom career talk for 35 of our students on 23 February with Telum Media's Tim Williamson, Managing Director, and Dennis Chong, Region Head, East Asia. Dennis shared his journalism experience and talked about the types of careers a journalism graduate can venture into. Tim talked his experience in journalism and corporate communications and some latest developments at Telum. Q&A from students ranged from questions on how to approach foreign media outlets and pitching stories to building a professional profile.

Faculty & Staff News

We're pleased to announce that Sharron Fast has been promoted to Senior Lecturer. Sharron has been with us since 2016 as our media law and ethics instructor, teaching both undergrads and graduates. She was previously at the HKU Faculty of Law where she taught and also conducted research focused on criminal law and human rights issues at the Centre for Comparative and Public Law. She remains a part-time lecturer with the Faculty of Law. Sharron is also heavily involved in freedom of expression issues, and is presently building a database on the State of Free Expression in Asia. She also provides training on media law to reporters for organizations like Reporters without Borders. Congratulations Sharron!

We want to welcome our newest faculty member, Cezary Podkul, who's with us as an adjunct lecturer this semester teaching Global Financial Journalism and Data Journalism. Cezary is an investigative and financial reporter, most recently with The Wall Street Journal in New York where he specialized in data-driven news stories focusing on finance. Prior to the Journal, Cezary wrote for ProPublica and Reuters and has also written for USA Today and The Washington Post, among others. While in New York, Cezary taught an investigative reporting skills class at Columbia Journalism School in New York. He's an alumnus of the school’s Stabile Investigative Reporting Program and regularly gives guest lectures to Stabile students on public records requests. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and frequently teaches at IRE conferences. Welcome aboard!

The current pandemic and the onset of climate change caused by global warming are two of the biggest challenges facing society today. At HKU Journalism, we aim to respond to current events by keeping course offerings flexible, so this semester we added a new course, called Health and Climate Reporting.

This course is an exciting new experiment for us, since we are offering it as a single course consisting of two 6-week modules; the first module deals with reporting health in the pandemic age, while the second module, starting after Reading Week, looks at climate change—the history, science, the political landscape, the impact and the various  mitigation efforts.

We are fortunate to have two experts to lead the modules. Adjunct Associate Professor Thomas Abraham literally wrote the book on pandemics; a former WHO spokesperson in Geneva, he is the author of Twenty-First Century Plague: The Story of SARS and most recently, Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication, and previously taught a health and science course here. And Marianne Bray, who leads the climate change section, was part of CNN’s award-winning team that covered the South Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, among other topics, and she has long been interested in starting a course on environmental reporting.

If this course is a success, they may end up as future full-time electives on our menu of courses. The coronavirus pandemic and new emerging pathogens and the real world impact of climate change are likely to be the two biggest stories of our lifetime, and we are thrilled to be training the next generation of journalists in how to cover both.

Our second brand-new course this year is Diana Jou's Motion Graphics for Journalists. It's a hands-on motion graphics course for reporters who want to tell visual stories. They'll produce original motion graphic explainers from scratch using Adobe Creative Cloud with an emphasis on After Effects and Google Earth Studio Pro. Diana is teaching students basic principles of motion design, visual communication, and how to identify news story angles that are worth visualizing. (Graphic by Nikita Koirala)

HKU Journalism in the news
(8 February) South China Morning Post: Thousands take to streets in northern Myanmar as unrest spreads to near Chinese border, by William Langley (MJ 2021)
(14 February) Rest of World: The digital afterlife industry is here to help you plan your death, by Marianne Bray
(25 February) The Telegraph: Myanmar's hardened Chinese population take stand against Beijing, co-written by William Langley (MJ 2021)
(3 March) CBC News: Foreign correspondents in China say harassment, intimidation by authorities ramping up (Keith B. Richburg)
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