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[BEIJING] Chinese authorities openly communicated information in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake. But false information warning of further earthquakes around Beijing almost caused unnecessary panic.

Experts say it is vital that science communicators — including scientists, seismology departments and journalists — improve their handling of information during such emergencies.

The 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit Wenchuan County in the southwest province of Sichuan at 2.28pm on 12 May. The earthquake was felt in most of China and parts of South-East Asia as far as Bangkok in Thailand, 2,000 kilometres away.

Nearly 15,000 deaths have been recorded so far, though these do not include the death toll in Wenchuan, where many remain trapped and the communications infrastructure destroyed.

Less than half an hour after the earthquake, information from the country's seismology departments appeared on major Chinese news portals, quickly updated with information on the exact site of the quake, the initial destruction and necessary measures to cope with the disaster, such as aftershock warnings.

The China Earthquake Administration — the government department in charge of earthquake prediction, management and evacuation — released three statements about the earthquake and aftershocks throughout the afternoon. Its local branch, the Sichuan Provincial Earthquake Bureau, also held six press briefings with updated information.

The open communication follows a ruling compelling the government to publicise and make available information of public interest, which took effect on 1 May (see New rules ensure government transparency in China).

But while government agencies were effective in releasing more information on the earthquake, other sources caused confusion.

Around 3pm on the day of the earthquake, the website of the People's Daily, the official newspaper of China's ruling Communist Party, warned of an earthquake between two and six in magnitude due to hit Beijing between 10pm and midnight that day. Meanwhile, news portals including the government's official Xinhua news agency reported that monitoring centres had detected earthquakes of 3.9 and 5.7 magnitude in Beijing's Tongzhou district and Jiaxing in Zhejiang province.

The China Earthquake Networks Centre quickly denounced the rumours of a Beijing earthquake, before further panic ensued. That evening, the centre's related seismological agencies announced that there were no signs of earthquakes in Tongzhou and Jiaxing.

Zhan Zhengmao, director of the Science Communication Institute of the Science Times newspaper, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says that while information available from authoritative sources has risen dramatically, China's science community has yet to develop common sense over communicating information accurately and responsibly.

"It is unlikely that the editors falsified the news. [The false reports] could have come from some individual experts' estimations. Most scientists have developed a habit of releasing information when asked to by the government, but not the professional judgement to be responsible with that information," Zhan told SciDev.Net.

But a scientist from the China Earthquake Networks Centre, who asked to remain anonymous, says that individual scientists are not equipped to release information because earthquake reporting and prediction are the result of repeated discussion and consultations based on observed data.

In addition, he says, the prediction of a 2–6 magnitude earthquake could not have come from a seismologist because experts classify earthquakes below a magnitude of five as 'small', and those above five as 'large'. No professional seismologist would ever mention earthquakes of such differing magnitudes together, he says.

"News editors should have the basic judgement to know where to get the authoritative information and to ignore the apparently untrue messages at the time of earthquake. They should not eagerly post non-authoritative information simply to improve their site visits," the scientist told SciDev.Net.

Critics have also complained about the earthquake institutions' failure to predict the Sichuan earthquake.

Officials told the media on 12 May that that no abnormal seismic activity had been detected prior to the earthquake.

Media reports pointed to warning signs, such as sightings of a large toad population migrating in Mianzhu, 50 kilometres from the earthquake's epicentre, three days before the disaster.

The China Earthquake Networks Centre scientist says predictions cannot simply rely on seemingly abnormal phenomena such as animal relocation.

He says earthquake prediction is based on risk analysis, and warnings can be made only when there is evidence that an earthquake is highly probable.

At a news conference earlier this week (13 May) Zhang Xiaodong, a senior research fellow at the China Earthquake Administration, said it is difficult to predict earthquakes because they often take place deep underground where detection equipment cannot be placed, and their occurrence depends on the surrounding geological structures at the time. This makes it difficult to obtain statistically meaningful samples to analyse, he said.