Recently, New York Times health and science reporter Donald McNeil joined the National Journal‘s Maggie Fox, the Nieman Foundation’s Stefanie Friedhoff and the Canadian Press’ Helen Branswell on a Global Journalist radio panel to discuss reporting on international pandemics and global diseases. The full episode is available to download, listen or watch online.
McNeil provided his take on everything from what he packed to keep himself safe from SARS to his take on the accuracy of the movie “Contagion,” but his most relevant thoughts for AHCJ readers were in response to questions about sourcing and a journalist’s obligations in an outbreak situation.
GJ: What are some of the ways you, as a journalist, verify the information you receive, and where do you get that information?
McNeil: … it all depends on the disease. But generally, you get fairly accurate, careful information out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. There are times when you aren’t happy with the information you are getting or the decisions they make, but most of the time, I think they are both extremely careful science-driven organizations.
GJ: In reporting on the potential danger of flu and warning people to stay vigilant, are you ever concerned that some reports from the media might cause panic among people?
McNeil: I don’t see my job as being a public health official; I see my job as a journalist. So my job is to tell the truth, and the truth is basically the one goddess I serve. Obviously, people care about this stuff, so in the same way another journalist who covers the White House wants to tell people accurately what the president did or didn’t do yesterday and what it means, I am trying to tell my audience how dangerous the virus is if it’s a virus, and how many people are killed, and what can be done about it. My job is telling the truth and getting the news out.