Pandemics provide many challenges to journalists and their organizations. Among the major hurdles to reporting them are:
Managing the many dimensions of the story. An influenza pandemic is a story that stretches into almost every beat in journalism and almost every country in the world. It is a health story that is also agricultural, political, economic, international, local, scientific, medical—and competitive. How do news organizations get their already stretched staff up to speed on such a complex story? What are efficient ways to cooperate inside newsrooms to share the expertise that already exists?
Here is an example of how Reuters does it and some thoughts from veteran flu reporter Alan Sipress.
Balancing essential public health information and watchdog reporting. When covering a pandemic, journalists find themselves at the center of an emotionally loaded, complex playing field; and are pulled in many directions. (Well explained by Peter Sandman.) They need to assure independence while public health officials ask for cooperation in getting specific messages and information to the public. How do newsrooms strike the right balance between providing essential information about the disease and ongoing response measures and pointing out missteps, errors and shortcomings?
Canadian Press reporter Helen Branswell offers some tips on finding independent sources and not falling for the wrong stories. Katrina-tested Sun Herald-editor Stan Tiner explains what he has learned about journalistic triage in a disaster. (Read a historic example of this conflict.)
Dealing with the uncertainty of it all. Flu viruses are elusive and their behavior is impossible to predict. The fact that a new strain such as 2009 H1N1 may or may not turn into a killer inevitably leads to discussions about the appropriateness of preparation and response measures; and to a lot of confusion in the general public (as illustrated in the chapter Crisis Communication). How do journalists provide an accurate picture of the threat without falling for rhetoric, fear mongering and polarization?
Maryn McKenna has some insights, and medical editor Harro Albrecht has an international perspective on these questions.
Staying Safe and Staying in Business. By moving from infected interview partners to newsrooms to their homes without protection, reporters may help spread the disease. How do journalists protect themselves, their colleagues, families and communities from getting infected? What do we know about running a news operation with many staff members quarantined at home?
AP Asia-Pacific medical writer Margie Mason explains how she guards herself when covering outbreaks and Reuters editor Maggie Fox shares how she got management involved in preparing an entire wire service for pandemic coverage.
Obviously, no one guide can have all the answers to these questions. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce some of the major traps and struggles journalists encounter and provide examples of answers and solutions some colleagues have worked out on the job. In the end, good reporting will require case-by-case decisions, depending on your news environment, where we are in an outbreak, what the needs of your community are at any point in time, and many other factors unique to your story.
So, please join the conversation by adding your comments, observations and tips to this site!
Editor’s note: Most of the content in this chapter was originally generated during discussions at the December 2006 Nieman Conference “The Next Big Health Crisis—And How to Cover It,” made possible with the generous support of the Dart Foundation. The authors have updated their contributions for this online guide where necessary.
Read edited transcripts of the 2006 conference printed in Nieman Reports »