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Northeastern students target rumors, falsehoods on coronavirus via new on-line magazine

Northeastern University graduate student Ha Ta, from Ho Chi Minh City, is the founding editor of the Global Observer at Northeastern.
Northeastern University graduate student Ha Ta, from Ho Chi Minh City, is the founding editor of the Global Observer at Northeastern.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

While much of the world focuses on the rising death toll and infection rates from the coronavirus, a new on-line magazine produced by international students at Northeastern University aims to put a human face on the outbreak and challenge some of the falsehoods surrounding the crisis.

In a recent post in the Global Observer, graduate student Yushu Tian painted an eerie picture of conditions in Wuhan, the city of 11 million at the center of the epidemic: Transportation in and out the city shut down; residents primarily confined to their homes. Included in her post were photos of a barren subway and vacant main road.

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Tian, a Malden resident, knows the city well. She graduated last May from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, and based her post on first-hand reports from professors, classmates, and friends trapped in the city. She is from Yichuan, China, an 11-hour drive from Wuhan.

Tian and other magazine staffers say they hope their coverage helps to spread the truth about the crisis in Wuhan amid some falsehoods, stereotypes, and discrimination circulation around the globe about the virus, including that all Chinese people, even those living in the United States, could be carrying the virus and should be feared.

“I really want to share their stories to all the people in the US. Maybe we can change the impression of all of us being bio-weapons to this being a sad story,” she said.

The Observer is among the student-led media outlets at local colleges with an audience primarily of international students, particularly a growing number from China.

Faculty adviser Matthew Carroll, who teaches journalism at Northeastern and who helped found the magazine in January, said the Observer is “a site for international students about their experiences in the US or about their viewpoints in life back home to help provide a place for them to write and do some reporting but also to help educate people in the US." In addition to China, staffers come from India, Taiwan, Vietnam, and other nations.

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“There is a knowledge gap between people of other countries, so I think helping educate people about what life is like in other countries is very important,” Carroll said.

Ha Ta, a journalism graduate student from Ho Chi Minh City and the founding editor of the magazine, said she has noticed that the news primarily focuses on the death counts and number of people infected.

“You don’t necessarily hear what people have to say there," said Ta, who lives in Dorchester. "The people trapped inside their homes and cannot go anywhere due to the transportation ban. It’s important to hear their stories. They didn’t intentionally create this chaos or this event they’re just simply a victim of the virus.”

Recently, Tian has faced the dilemma of whether to wear a surgical face mask in public. While people wear masks to protect others and themselves from all illnesses, including coronavirus, discrimination has made it much more of a statement, she said.

“If I wear a mask, will other people believe that I’m the bio-weapon who has coronavirus?” Tian asked.

Carroll said that one of his students was thanked by his Uber driver for not canceling. The Asian driver said that once people saw him, they immediately feared that he had coronavirus.

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The students are well aware of China’s history of attempting to silence reporters over sensitive topics. Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi went missing recently after documenting the coronavirus in Wuhan; relatives and friends believe he was forcibly quarantined.

Ta says that the magazine informs writers of the risks, but ultimately it is their decision. She also said that on sensitive topics, the organization reaches out to Carroll and school administrators to discuss potential backlash.