Most say outbreak coverage has been appropriate

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher quotes three AHCJ board members about coverage of the swine flu outbreak, all of whom agree that reporters and editors need to take a measured approach. AHCJ president Trudy Lieberman says journalists should be careful not to overplay the danger but also must not minimize it.

AHCJ resourcesAHCJ resources for covering swine flu, pandemics and preparedness

“The more history and context you can get, the better. You need to give the how-to advice.”

Ivan Oransky, an AHCJ board member and managing editor for online at Scientific American, says journalists have learned lessons from past scares, such as anthrax and SARS.

Media critic Howard Kurtz writes about swine flu coverage in The Washington Post, saying that “the sheer volume of media attention suggested a full-blown crisis.” Kurtz talks to people from MSNBC and CNN, as well as journalism educators who all seem to back up Kurtz’ assertion.

He does report that flu stories are no longer the exclusive domain of traditional news organizations:

These days, flu stories spread through more than just traditional outlets. Nielsen Online reports that Internet postings about swine flu are nearly 10 times as great as for the salmonella and peanut butter scare last winter, and the subject of nearly 2 percent of Twitter messages.

Gary Schwitzer, a health journalism professor at the University of Minnesota and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, says he has been “favorably impressed” by most of the coverage, although he says he hasn’t watched television coverage.

The Knight Science Journalism tracker analyzes coverage of the swine flu outbreak so far, finding that “advice in fact sheet and question-answer formats are common” but that there is little coverage of the science. The Tracker does acknowledge that’s to be expected at this early stage but that soon there will be new science to report on.

Kit Eaton of Fast Company reports on the use of Twitter to spread information about the swine flu outbreak. Eaton writes that Twitter seems to be finding use as a live news channel as people use it to report things like passengers at the Atlanta airport using face masks.

However, Eaton points to another issue: “there’s no moderation on Twitter, obviously, so there’s as much a potential for the spread of misinformation as there is for vital or interesting news.”

CNN’s John D. Sutter reports that some people say Twitter has become a “hotbed of unnecessary hype and misinformation about the outbreak.”

Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute and a blogger on ForeignPolicy.com, says “there’s incentive for Twitter users to post whatever is on their mind because it helps them grow their online audiences.”

But in an emergency, that tendency means people write about their own fears of symptoms and widespread deaths, which can create an uninformed hysteria, he said.

Al Tompkins, of Poynter Institute, says information about the outbreak needs to be put in context by journalists. Tompkins also says that — so far — television coverage has been responsible.

Update

AHCJ board member and independent journalist Andrew Holtz was interviewed on KCBS radio in San Francisco about media coverage of the outbreak.

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