Officials, journalists agree information key in public health crisis

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.

When the H1N1 pandemic first hit in the fall or 2009, every sickness and every death was of great interest to the public. Anxiety ran high; people wanted to know how this new illness was affecting their communities. In some places, public health officials released considerable information about the victims. In others, however, they revealed little or nothing.Right to Know

That may change soon, thanks to a “cooperative effort between AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, aimed at establishing flexible guidelines on how much information to reveal about victims in a public health crisis.

At AHCJ’s request, ASTHO hosted a meeting on Oct. 8 at which reporters and health officials hashed out their concerns and reached common ground. The daylong meeting at ASTHO headquarters outside of Washington, D.C., was attended by health officials from the D.C. area as well from Alabama, Michigan, Rhode Island and two federal agencies. A state health official also participated by speaker phone from Tennessee. AHCJ was represented by journalists Charles Ornstein, Rose Hoban and Felice Freyer.

Health officials readily accepted the premise that openness is essential to maintain public trust, said Freyer, who chairs the Right to Know Committee. But they explained their worries about what the media might do (and have done) with the information released, such as scouring obituaries to deduce who died and distressing families by showing up at funerals. AHCJ agreed to advise its members that it is unethical to violate victims’ privacy without permission. Read more …

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