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AP gets ‘blockbuster’ scoop on China’s delay in warning of the coronavirus

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What and when did authorities in China know about the coronavirus’ initial spread and did they react fast enough? Those have become burning questions as COVID-19 tears a deadly and destructive path across the globe.

Among the toughest to answer, too.

China, said by press freedom watchdogs to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists, is keeping the tightest of reins on information about how it managed the spread of the disease from its origins in the city of Wuhan.

The Associated Press went further than anyone in cracking open the information lockdown with an exclusive story that rose above another week of searing journalism about the pandemic from the agency’s teams around the world.

The scoop is this week’s Best of the Week winner.

The AP’s findings,based on internal documents and expert testimony,were astounding.

The story showed that top officials in Beijing knew about a likely pandemic,but held off on warning the public for at least six days – six days during which tens of thousands attended a banquet in Wuhan and millions more travelled for Lunar New Year festivities.

The story’s byline – “By The Associated Press” – testified to the risks run by the reporter who secured and developed the scoop.

AP’s decision not to identify the reporter by name sought to protect them and sources. China’s communist rulers have been using their absolute power,police apparatus and state-run media to try to control the narrative of how coronavirus spread and was managed,and whistle-blowers have been intimidated and detained. China also kicked out 13 American journalists in March, amid tensions with Washington.

Beijing has blamed Wuhan city officials for missteps in managing the coronavirus crisis,deflecting attention from top authorities. Chinese media were permitted to report on incompetence and cover-ups by local officials. But they were muffled when they tried to go any further.

The AP’s scoop helped puncture that blackout. The story also brought clarity and balance at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump and other top American officials have been loudly blaming Beijing for the outbreak.

The story grew out of documents obtained by the reporter from a source in the medical field about the role of the National Health Commission – China’s top medical authority. Going through the documents, the reporter discovered one that pointed to the key six-day delay by the Chinese government in informing the public.

The reporting grew out of documents obtained from a source that pointed to the key six-day delay.

It took nearly a month to corroborate the findings,assess the delay’s impact and find other ways to verify the contents,all while protecting the reporter’s identity and that of sources. The Chinese government repeatedly ordered health workers not to speak to the media,hindering the search for sources.

The reporter contacted dozens of people in the medical field,homing in on those familiar with the Chinese system but not part of it – making it less likely that they would face retribution. The reporter used encrypted messaging apps with sources,to secure lines of communication in the face of China’s pervasive digital surveillance.

The story was widely praised for its balance. AP underlined the impact of the six-day delay and a string of blunders but also pointed out failings by other governments, including the U.S.

Widely praised for its balance,the AP story also pointed out failings by other governments, including the U.S.

The scoop rippled around the world and into the corridors of power.

At least nine members of Congress tweeted it out. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt cited the AP’s reporting in a lawsuit filed against the Chinese government, saying the story showed how thousands were infected in nearly a week of silence before China’s president warned the public.

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A woman in Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province, wears a mask against the coronavirus as she looks at a globe showing China, April 15, 2020. – AP Photo / Ng Han Guan

CNN did its own story based on the AP’s. The well-read Axios online newsletter featured it prominently. Foreign Policy wrote about it – as did Bill Bishop,who writes the most prominent China newsletter,calling it a “blockbuster story.”

Other China-based journalists,including reporters from The New York Times,The Washington Post,The Wall Street Journal,the BBC and the Financial Times also retweeted it,calling it a “bombshell,” “probably the most important story from international media on the coronavirus outbreak in China,” “impressive and nuanced – a must-read,” “huge,” “an epic scoop” and more.

For breaking through China’s tightly policed walls of information control about the critical first days of the pandemic,with a scoop secured in one of the world’s toughest media environments, the unnamed but not unsung AP reporter is this week’s Best of the Week laureate.

For AP’s complete coverage of the coronavirus:

AP’s hub for comprehensive all-formats coverage of the virus outbreak.

Understanding the Outbreak: stories explaining the new coronavirus.

One Good Thing: daily stories of hope and humanity amid the crisis.

Ground Game: Inside the Outbreak: AP’s podcast series.

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