Mechanism of "Problem Identification" and "Problem Attribution" in Public Health Crisis: The Case of H1N1 Coverage in Hong Kong

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference paperpeer-review


Based on “framing theory”, this paper attempts to deconstruct media mechanism of “problem identification” and “problem attribution” during epidemic crisis through scrutinizing news coverage of M1N1 in Hong Kong as a case study. Il intends to elicit the hidden rules behind certain styles of news coverage and clarify variables that contribute to the process or the outcome of “problem identification”, “problem attribution” and “problem solving” from the following three perspectives: news production, social political environment, ideological position of newspapers. We conducted a comprehensive content analysis of 429 articles in total throughout the epidemic period. Samples were drawn from the four most influential newspapers in Hong Kong: Oriental Daily, Ming Pao, Wenwei Po and Headline Daily, representing popular paper, elite paper, pro-establishment paper and free newspaper respectively and with the largest circulation in each category. In-depth interviews and framing analysis were also involved as qualitative approaches to uncover internal “media reality”, professional standards and journalistic routines. Actually, how we identify a problem and how we allocate responsibilities are far beyond objectivity. According to Entman, “Framing” is a process of “selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communication text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and treatment recommendation”. This process, together with its outcomes carries significant meanings in crisis communication. As the countable few research integrating “framing theory” into the practice of crisis communication, this paper starts with analyzing the problems identified, focusing on what meanings each event was given and how the reality is constructed. This paper argues for a parsimonious condensation of media frames during public health crisis. Based on the ten main problems identified, we further categorize the whole process of crisis into three stages with their distinct focuses and different functions played for each period. Generally, Hong Kong media framed “problems” for each period with emphasis on “risk”, “policy”, and “responsibility” respectively. Rather than “natural disaster”, HK media are more likely to identify it as “man-made disaster”. The local government is the one who catches flak for almost everything. Newspapers continued their mentality in SARS as they held a susceptive attitude towards the government, strengthened their role of monitoring and criticizing policy makers. Contextualized in Hong Kong, a “weak government and strong media” social pattern could be identified. At a macro level, we also find that the “mechanism” is controlled by a constant and rigid “power structure” which is resistant to change, while the operation per se is a dynamic process. Four dominant interest groups including the government, media, specialists and the public interact with and inter-depend on each other to construct a hierarchical framework of communication. At the main time, professional regulations generate a set of news making formulas for crisis coverage. Influences from the three dimensions (social environment, ideology and journalistic norms) make Hong Kong newspapers share a special pattern of problem identification and problem attribution, whilst variations still exist depending on their ideological positions. In summary, this paper intends to give detailed account for the mechanism of media coverage in public crisis. It provides an understanding of the underlying process of crisis communication from both micro production and macro societal perspectives. On one hand, it would contribute to the theoretical construction of “news framing” in crisis communication. On the other hand, through this systematic study of H1N1 epidemic, I hope practitioners in journalistic field
could get valuable instructions for further practices.


ConferenceInternational Association for Media and Communication Research Conference (IAMCR 2011) - Cities, Creativity, Connectivity
Internet address


Dive into the research topics of 'Mechanism of "Problem Identification" and "Problem Attribution" in Public Health Crisis: The Case of H1N1 Coverage in Hong Kong'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this