About AHCJ: General News

Health officials, journalists agree on standards Date: 07/20/11

New guidance addresses information release in public health emergencies

Public health officials and journalists now have guidance on what information should be made public when someone dies or falls ill during a public health emergency, thanks to a unique collaborative effort being made public today.

A new document – developed by leaders in public health and health-care journalism – provides a framework for releasing such information as the age and location of private individuals who have been affected by an epidemic or other public-health event.

These nonbinding recommendations, "Guidance on the release of information concerning deaths, epidemics or emerging diseases," are meant to help public health officials balance the need to keep the public informed with requirements to maintain individuals' privacy.

The guidance emphasizes the importance of openness, stating that information should be withheld only when there is a clearly justified reason.

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO), the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) teamed up to develop the guidance after the H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic of 2009.

As H1N1 spread across the country, public health officials took varied approaches to announcing illnesses and deaths in their communities. Some provided gender, age and residence of victims, while others gave little or no information about the people who died. These discrepancies caught the attention of the media and highlighted the need for guidance about when and how to release information during a health emergency.

Now, state and local health officials can refer to the guidance in such situations, and reporters have a better idea of what to expect. The guidance is adaptable to varied circumstances and regional differences. In highly populated areas, for example, more granular information can be released (a specific age, a particular neighborhood). In more rural settings, details may be less specific, such as a person's stage in life or quadrant of the state. The document sets standards for journalists as well, calling on them to respect privacy and attend to context.

"We don't know when the next public health emergency will occur, nor what it will entail," said Dr. David R. Gifford, a former ASTHO board member who served as director of the Rhode Island Department of Health from 2005 through early 2011. "But now health officials will have a document they can consult when making the tough decisions about information disclosure."

"This guidance strikes a balance between privacy concerns and getting the word out to the public," said NACCHO Executive Director Robert M. Pestronk. "This document should be useful in a variety of circumstances, and we're hopeful that reporters will better understand the obligations of health officials to protect and respect individuals' privacy."

"This document reflects a ground-breaking consensus among public health officials and journalists," said Charles Ornstein, AHCJ president. "It will help reporters understand why sometimes public health officials cannot disclose information. It will also give them a basis to challenge those who seem to be withholding information without justification."

The guidance can be found online.

The key components in the guidance are:

  • Public health officials: Strive to release as much information as possible within the limits of the law. If withholding information, explain why.

  • Public health officials: When someone dies or falls ill in an incident of interest to the public, provide some information in each of these categories: age (can be age range), gender, location of victim's residence (municipality or region), underlying conditions that increased risk, and place of death. Be as specific as possible without giving so much information that the person could be identified.

  • Journalists: Understand health officials' obligation to protect privacy and also respect individuals' desire for privacy.

  • Journalists: Provide context to enhance public understanding. For example, if you've been told where the person lives, explain whether the risk extends beyond that particular area.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) represents the nation's 2,800 local governmental health departments. These city, county, metropolitan, district, and tribal departments work every day to protect and promote health and well-being for all people in their communities.

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO) is the national nonprofit organization representing the public health agencies of the United States, the U.S. Territories, and the District of Columbia, as well as the 120,000 public health professionals these agencies employ. ASTHO members, the chief health officials of these jurisdictions, are dedicated to formulating and influencing sound public health policy and to assuring excellence in state-based public health practice.

The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) represents more than 1,300 reporters, editors and producers who cover health care for print, broadcast and online outlets.  AHCJ holds national and regional training sessions, hosts an extensive Web site of reporter resources, and advocates for public access to information about medicine and health-care organizations.  AHCJ has taken the lead in calling for openness in government, and its professional standards are cited as a model in avoiding conflicts of interest.