Journalists must succeed where politicians fail in risk communication

Image: wackystuff via Flickr

Image: wackystuff via Flickr

With no new cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in South Korea since July 2, the outbreak appears to have ended. Commentaries such as a recent Nature editorial are assessing the damage and the response – and the damage of the response.

In total, 186 people became sick with the virus and 36 died. Yet the response to the virus in South Korea shared something in common with the response to Ebola in the United States during the West African outbreak last year: It was over the top, largely because public officials have yet to master adequate risk communication.

During the MERS outbreak, those at risk for infection were primarily patients sharing a hospital with a MERS patient. Similarly, the only people at risk for Ebola in the U.S. were those who came into direct contact with the bodily fluid of an infected person. There weren’t many infected individuals in the U.S., and nearly all of whom were in high-level hospitals.

Yet over the summer, South Korean schools closed and public events were cancelled, the editorial notes. June tourist numbers fell 41 percent compared with June 2014, which translates to an estimate $10 billion loss in tourism dollars. Sound familiar? As I wrote at the time, media here in the U.S. hyped the Ebola panic to such ridiculous levels that freelance journalist and AHCJ board member Maryn McKenna began tracking the too many examples of “Ebolanoia” at her Tumblr.

Though the term sounds amusing, the losses were not: teachers preventing from returning to school, businesses temporarily closed, quarantines issued for returning Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers, flu mistaken for Ebola – my own son’s preschool teachers did not want him to attend for two weeks after I returned from Mozambique, which is three times further from Liberia than the distance between Dallas and the Panama Canal.

The overreaction, and subsequent financial losses and disruption to normal daily life, in South Korea during the MERS outbreak mirrored what had occurred in the U.S. during the Ebola scare (since it really wasn’t an outbreak on this side of the Atlantic). In both cases, public health and government officials did not wrangle control of the narrative and accurately convey the risks to the respective populations. Risk communication expert David Ropeik has written about the overreaction to Ebola here and the lessons we can learn, but clearly the South Korean authorities did not learn from U.S. mistakes, despite their “exemplary” public health response and transparency during the outbreak, the Nature editorial notes.

Because the frightening nature of outbreaks make fear rational and understandable, Ropeik said, “This puts great responsibility on the shoulders of the press and politicians” to manage effective risk communication. Nature notes, “Often we see that some are not up to the job.” Journalists cannot force public officials to do their jobs well, but news folks can take responsibility for doing their own jobs well, both communicating risk accurately and effectively – with context – and in holding accountable those public officials not doing the same.

Using experts such as Ropeik can help when journalists are writing about these outbreaks. Several universities have risk communication departments, such as the University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication, and similar centers at the University of Maryland, George Mason University and Ashland University. Journalists can also keep an eye out for opportunities such as the National Press Foundation’s webinar on understanding risk. Ropeik wrote a piece specifically for journalists several years back for CJR.

Whenever a major outbreak happens, I’m reminded of the first few lines of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem If: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” … then you’ll be the kind of journalist the public relies upon in a time of uncertainty and fear.


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  1. Pingback: Communicating drug risks in pharma marketing: A new FDA challenge | Association of Health Care Journalists

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