The question of reporting on flu comes up here from time to time and one of those times was a few days ago. In a post on the low path bird flu outbreaks in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley we raised a number of questions we thought should have been asked by the Canadian Press’s reporter. We drew a comparison with the exemplary reporting for the same wire service (Canadian Press) by Helen Branswell, generally regarded by flu folks as the best reporter on the subject (there are also other extremely good reporters, among them Maggie Fox at Reuters and John Lauerman at Bloomberg, to name just two). Ms. Branswell took the time to comment on that post, and lest her words get lost in the comment thread, here they are again:
I sure don’t want to sound ungrateful for the high praise from the Reveres. It means a lot to me.
But I would like to come to Greg’s defence and more generally, I guess, the defence of many of the remaining journalists in the shrinking ranks of paid journalism.
I have spent a lot of time writing about flu and so yes, I’ve got a grounding in the science and a pretty good Rolodex. But there is no such thing as a “flu reporter” — no newsroom, including mine, has the resources to allow someone to focus only or even extensively on one disease these days. Today’s newsrooms are lucky to have a dedicated health reporter. I think unless someone figures out a new business model for journalism and quickly, the ranks of health reporters will thin dramatically over the next 12-18 months.
The world we’re facing — the world we’re in, actually — is more like this one:
In the last few weeks my colleague Greg has written about (and this is not a complete list): British Columbia’s budget deficit, a taping in Vancouver of the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance?”, the death of a long-serving local politician, an extradition hearing, problems with the funding of construction of the athletes’ village for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the fact that an oil company is offering a half-million reward for information leading to the arrest of someone who has been bombing an oil pipeline in northern British Columbia. Oh, and a number of stories about the latest avian flu outbreak in the B.C.’s Fraser Valley.
I’d bet real money that in addition to writing print versions of all those pieces he also cut audio clips for radio versions of those stories. He may also have had to do video versions of some of those stories. That is the life of a reporter these days.
If context is everything, that is the context.
It’s a valuable perspective and deserves a comment of its own from us.
The sum of the argument is that in general we as readers should no longer expect reporters to do too much more than report: literally. That might mean, as in this case, reproducing the words of government officials about an important problem to the poultry industry and public health. It might also mean not asking questions because there are too few reporters with the requisite knowledge of specialized topics and too little time to track down those who could give the proper background. It looks stark when written out like this, but I have no doubt it is an accurate and honest rendition of what is happening today, which is not the fault of reporters. Nor is it just journalism. Everybody is hard pressed, from health workers to insurance company clerks. It is harder and harder to do everything to the level we would like. Either you are doing nothing because you’ve lost your job or you are one of the “lucky” ones who still has a job but has to work twice as hard to cover the reduced staffing and pay the bills. Helen Branswell can still be an ace reporter because she has an unusual talent, a store of knowledge and experience at her disposal, and a great rolodex. But she is unusual and lucky in that respect and I have no doubt is herself feeling the pressure.
I’m not going to argue with her version or even bemoan where we are. But we need to ask what it means for us as the reading public. If flu is one of our vital interests (substitute any other topic), what now is the best way to learn about it? At the moment people who are really flu obsessed (or Iraq obsessed or health reform obsessed, etc.) use a hybrid model of professional journalists and citizen journalists (I know some professional journalists who don’t recognize there is such a thing as a citizen journalist, but that’s their problem). Most of us who are not professional reporters but write about the flu depend on professional reporters to a large extent. They gather the news. We don’t have bureaus in Jakarta or Beijing or Geneva and depend on reporting from those places. We filter what they produce, often producing our own “mash-ups” from several sources that are introduced, interspersed and summarized with our interpretations. It is a melding of experience and knowledge with the hard work (and often intrepid) shoe leather reporting of others, especially local reporters in places like Java or the Mekong Delta. A small army of news sentinels at The Flu Wiki Forum, CurEvents, FluTrackers or Avian Flu Talk and next level news filters and commentators like Crof at H5N1 or Mike at Avian Flu Diary (see sidebar for more links) then digest and try to make sense of it. The article we found wanting at Canadian Press is grist for that mill, too. It is like a mini Wikipedia, growing and transforming minute by minute in ways no newspaper could ever afford or accomplish.
The conclusion we draw from this is that if you really want to know what’s going on in the flu world you shouldn’t depend on newspapers as a source of information but go to the next (meta)level, where news, comment, the peer reviewed science literature and the gray literature of official reports, press releases, and rumor filters are done better (or at least different) than most any newspaper or wire service. We can’t do without the wireservices and newspapers. They are an essential part of the news infrastructure. But just as a bridge is necessary to get from place to place, it isn’t the sole means for getting from one point to another. It is infrastructure. In today’s world a wireservice or newspaper can no longer be depended upon as a main source of news, either because it is is incomplete, presents only a biased fragment of the truth or has become a stenographic tool for official sources. The days when these were the sole source of news are over, anyway. The internet has transformed everything.
This has happened so fast that there has been a lot of dislocation and loss of valuable journalistic talent. We can’t do anything about that. We have to take the world as it is.