What journalists think about swine flu coverage

ShareThisAs swine flu cases spread across Canada, J-Source Tools for Reporters editor Larry Cornies is asking journalists and health experts for their assessment of the coverage given this story to date. The following are excerpts from telephone interviews. If you have your own thoughts, please add a comment below:

André Picard, The Globe and Mail

“The big mistake we made with SARS is that we just got caught up in the body count. We just become so obsessed with how many people were in hospital today, how many dead, that we lost sight of the fact that a lot more people were in hospital for many more seemingly mundane things like the everyday flu. We lost sight of what’s really clear in retrospect, which is that it was clearly just a hospital-based infection. There was really no spread in the community at all.

“This is the identical question with this [the swine flu story] — there still doesn’t seem to be any community spread. It’s all travellers, except for in Mexico . . . but in Canada, it’s all travellers, in Europe it’s all travellers, so we don’t know yet if it’ll be spread anywhere else . . . . In the briefing this morning (Tuesday), [the WHO] talked about that specifically. They just don’t know yet [whether] there’s been any community spread, and that’s what they’re really monitoring; that’s really a key question.
“I think [journalists] have to understand some basic science. You don’t have to have science degree or anything, but just things like, coming back to SARS again, a classic epidemic curve — that things peak and then they fall off. I did a presentation at a Canadian Association of Journalists conference where I took a graph and I graphed the amount of coverage and put it against a graph of cases. Our coverage sort of peaked well after it was over. We were still hysterical a good week or two after, in epidemic terms, the thing was clearly over. We have to conscious of that stuff — we have to understand that these things have a natural life and they always follow the same pattern.
“I think so far [our coverage nationally] in the written media has been quite restrained. [My editors] asked me what I thought of the Globe’s coverage this morning. I responded that we had only one story and we had other stuff. Again with SARS, our entire front page was SARS — it was like the end of the world as we know it.
“I think [restrained coverage] is important. That’s harder to do on TV. On TV, it was something like the first 10 stories last night. I thought surely something else is going on in the world.

“I think the death count they gave this morning was 73. Seventy-three. That’s not a day’s malaria. It’s barely half an hour’s malaria.”

Tom Blackwell, National Post

“We don’t yet know whether this will turn out to be the urgent pandemic that some people are speculating it might be. . . . Media like to amp up certain stories . . . but we need to have a few more certainties about this.
“The media in these situations also have to be very critical and vigilant in terms of how authorities are handling situations like this if it appears they’re falling down on the job.
“I think specifically what’s going to be interesting and important in the next couple of days is finding out more about the outbreak in Mexico, because there seems to be this dichotomy between what’s happened in Mexico — or at least what we know about the Mexican outbreak in terms of the number of people who got serious ill or died — versus what’s happening with the people who are infected in other countries, where it’s a much, much less serious illness. Some people barely knew they were sick.
“Why is that? We’ll need to look at that. It could be that many, many more Mexicans have been infected and have had the kind of mild illness that we’re seeing here and in the States, but never had any contact with the health-care system — cases that have never even been reported.
“The big thing that people kept on saying to me yesterday during the reporting was, ‘We got to know what the denominator is. What is the total number of cases?’ We don’t really know that. We know in a certain number of cases people got really sick and ended up in the hospital . .
. . Until we know the total number, we can’t really say how virulent this is, or how deadly.”

David McKie, CBC News

“It’s too early to tell how well we’re doing. I think we’ll be able to judge that in another few weeks. One of the things we have to do is straddle the line between reporting enough and not reporting enough — [between] scaring people and giving people the information they need.

“In doing that we have to resist the urge to sensationalize and exaggerate. Context is probably even more important now than ever, and context can be lost in the race to edit tightly to fit shrinking news holes and formats. The danger is that the context is lost.
“One of the advantages that we do have now, compared to when we were covering SARS, is that the Web is much more of a component now than it used to be. We can point people to the Web to a degree now and it has become more of a reflex for people. . . . In this multimedia universe, we have to be aware of that and . . . be cognizant of what we can do in print, for radio or for TV, and what component needs to be done for which platform. Clearly, it’s a new universe for us at the CBC, anyway. You have to think multiple platforms.

“One of our problems in covering stories like this is that we get bored very easily. That one briefing that we may overlook or ignore in favour of something else might have been a key briefing that we needed to attend. So I think that the trick for us is to stay on top of it, even when our natural impulses are screaming at us to move on.
“And I think we need to try to do accountability stories. . . . Is the system really that much better since SARS? Are there still cracks in the system? We need to dig for the accountability. Certainly that’s what I’m going to try to do as an investigative journalism with the investigative unit as we cover this story going forward. I’m already thinking about access requests I can file, thinking about requests I can piggyback on, thinking about requests that I can dig up that have been made in the past on pandemic-related issues, that talk about our ability to be prepared. I was just reading a document from Public Safety that raises some interesting questions about our preparedness.
"As the story starts to move into a new phase or as it continues, as it inevitably will, with increased deaths, we have to operate at a number of levels. We’ve got to get people the information they need — the travel advisories, the updates on how we’re categorizing the pandemic, any health information we can pass on, information about public institutions, all that kind of stuff — [but] we also have to have the accountability. At the end of the day, we always have to be wondering, ‘How well are we prepared?’ ‘How well are we doing?’ ‘Are we spending enough money?’ ‘Have we done the job we needed to do to prepare for the next big one?’ ”


Good points made by all — but you missed an opportunity by not including Helen Branswell of the Canadian Press. No disrespect to Andre or Tom, whose work I know and respect, but in the small world of infectious disease/global health reporting, Helen is pretty much regarded as the best flu reporter on the planet. (And I say this as someone who competes with her.) - Maryn McKenna, independent journalist, author BEATING BACK THE DEVIL and SUPERBUG

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