Tag Archives: H1N1

Journalists discuss reporting from the heart of a pandemic

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.

Host David Reed

Host David Reed

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.

Guidelines for releasing information in public health crisis still in the works

When North Carolina officials recently announced the death of a teenager as a result of the flu but gave out little other information, reporter Rose Hoban, R.N., of North Carolina Public Radio, had a sense of deja vu. Hoban is a member of AHCJ’s Right to Know Committee, which has dealt with exactly this issue.

Some background:
During the H1N1 pandemic, reporters found a wide variation in what information local and state health officials were disclosing about H1N1 deaths. As a result, representatives of AHCJ, including Hoban, met with health officials representing the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the group agreed on flexible guidelines specifying what information should be released about victims in a public health crisis.

Last week, Hoban filed an update about the issue on her blog with comments from Gene Matthews, who is a senior fellow at the North Carolina Institute of Public Health and was the lead counsel for the CDC for 25 years. She also checked with ASTHO about the status of the draft guidelines and was told, “I don’t think it’s going to disappear, fall into oblivion …”

PEJ: 2010 saw less coverage of health care

Every year, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism breaks down news coverage by topic and medium, then determines what percentage of the news hole each topic filled in a given calendar year (more on methodology here). Spurred by politics-oriented reform coverage and the H1N1 pandemic, health had dominated the news in late 2009 and early 2010, but by year’s end it had fallen behind the economy (14 percent), the mid-term elections (10 percent) and the BP oil spill (7 percent).

Interestingly, it seems that as the supply dropped, public demand for health coverage was actually surging. April’s health care debate ranked behind only the BP oil spill in Pew’s list of events for which public interest exceeded media coverage. Health was also one of many subjects which ranked in the top five in blogs and traditional media, but couldn’t even crack the top 10 on Twitter. For the record, Twitter’s four favorite topics were Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook, in that order.

Lack of vaccination, awareness worsen UK flu season

The Guardian‘s Denis Campbell and Sarah Boseley report that a drop in vaccination rates and a lack of public awareness has made this flu season worse than it should have been, and that there is potential for the NHS to be “inundated” with flu cases. The story has spread quickly in the UK, and may be providing just the sort of public awareness campaign that the reporters found was previously lacking.

Professor Steve Field, who until last month was the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, spoke out as the Department of Health revealed there are more than 300 people in critical care beds with flu and 17 people have died.
Field said the decision not to encourage the public to have a jab to protect themselves was “ill-advised” and needed to be urgently reversed.
The NHS should have acted more decisively to encourage people to have the jab because it was known that H1N1 swine flu was still circulating and that few NHS staff had the swine flu vaccine when it was offered to them late last year.


For more European health news, see AHCJ’s Covering Europe initiative.

Officials, journalists agree information key in public health crisis

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 …