Effect Measure

Flu and the news business

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.


  1. #1 DemFromCT
    February 5, 2009

    Helen’s right (as usual). The local paper, especially, has a void to fill already, and even the national papers are losing beat reporters. We have an obligation to educate as well as criticize, and should work with the reporters (and editors) as best we can when we are in a position to.

    Anyone with an interest in this should read this (How to Save Your Newspaper By Walter Isaacson) and see Frost-Nixon (and imagine yourself as Frost, trying to do Walter Cronkite’s job).

  2. #2 Albert
    February 5, 2009

    Revere you crack me up. You mentioned all of the flu forums, but mine, lol. Typical….

    We blew the top off panflu awareness, along with paving the way for ALL of the forums. I’ll tell you….. we get no respect, lol.

    I suppose when a line is drawn in the sand, it’s good to know which side of the line people are on. Am I the only one who finds this somewhat comical that nobody ever mentions our site with the other flu sites? Also, if you look at the number of overall “views” on our threads, compared to the number of “views” on other forums, you will see that our traffic is substantially larger. The other sites simply have a spider/bot problem.

    Take care guys,


  3. #3 revere
    February 5, 2009

    Albert: It’s a problem whenever you start mentioning sites/people. I know I left off worthy reporters and sites, but the post required mentioning at least some. Since you took the trouble to comment, I added Avian Flu Talk in the post. It wasn’t left off for any particular reason. Luck of the draw.

  4. #4 Kobie
    February 5, 2009

    Write it and they will read. People want to know what others do not and the space to add their own mark. Bird flu is just a practicle case of that.
    What helps weekly papers and mags work? Not the regular news.
    Sadly a check of Google Labs “google trends” shows more stories out numeber searches – except for where an outbreak occures then it is reversed.
    I hope reporters aggragate not just parrot what is said but never color the news. Walter Kronkite(sp?) is an icon yet one never knew his political affiliation or slant.

    Please add HHS pandemic list at Twitter via PandemicFlu.gov

    “A wise man has long ears, big eyes, and a small mouth” – Russian proverb.

  5. #5 Lyne Robichaud
    February 5, 2009

    Revere, you wrote: “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.”

    Last summer, Le Devoir reported that “Premier Harper threatens democracy by trying to control information from different departments of his government”, said an expert.(http://www.ledevoir.com/2008/07/12/197471.html?fe=4361&fp=383816&fr=94547)

    “The government does not want unpleasant surprises in the media, but it doesn’t want good surprises either. The government just wants to control everything,” said Michel Drapeau.

    Then in August 2008, we heard that the Harper administration was accused of wanting to hide the consequences of climate change (http://www.ledevoir.com/2008/08/02/200061.html; http://www.ledevoir.com/2008/08/05/200357.html?fe=4561&fp=383816&fr=98231). “Why so much discretion to an issue of such a size? Yesterday, in chorus, environmental movements and opposition parties questioned the great timidity with which the government of Stephen Harper has released this week a voluminous report on the health consequences of climate change in the country. “This is a ploy completely absurd and irresponsible”, said Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party.

    “This ancient technique, widely used in recent years, is of course to hide as much as possible the reality of the environmental crisis to Canadians and its effect on their families,” said Jack Layton.

    For Jack Layton, this whole stage looked rather like “a doctor who refuses to transmit the results of an analysis to the patient,” he said.”

    What I am asking myself is: if there has been a tendency to hide the reality of the consequences of climate changes to Canadians, could there be also a tendency to hide the reality of bird flu outbreaks and pandemic threat?

    In June 2008, Quebec Government refused a collaboration with the sphere of Flublogia. A document, obtained via the Access to Information Act, concludes that social medias are not worth sending time or money because they lack credibility and maturity (see «Les médias sociaux et la communication du risque | Direction de la coordination de l’information et des mesures d’urgence, Gouvernement du Québec http://www.zonegrippeaviaire.com/showthread.php?t=1894&page=2#17) .

    If we are to see less and less professional reporting about influenza and pandemic preparedness in Canada, and if the federal and provincial authorities have demonstrated in the past a tendency to control information about public health (and other issues), and if the sphere of Flublogia is denied collaboration and is being totally rejected because it is considered “not credible and not mature”, then do we have reasons to be worried?


    [By the way, apart from managing a flu forum (http://www.zonegrippeaviaire.com) since June 2007, I also blog about influenza and pandemic issues (http://lynerobichaud.blogspot.com/). I mainly write about the politics of pandemic preparedness in Canada, and the lack of 2.0 vision from Canadian officials. But I write in French, because this is my mother tongue. So does it count?]

  6. #6 highflyer
    February 5, 2009

    “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.”

    There is an ingredient that is diminishing: educated readers able to recognize quality and willing or able to pay for quality.

    “The days when these were the sole source of news are over, anyway. The internet has transformed everything.”

    The internet added mass and speed and made quality harder to find in the endless heaps of regurgitation, comment and opinion surrounding every news piece. Even worse, the opinions and comments are often even used and read and understood as a news article, even though they are everything but.
    Fact checked,researched and well presented news is still a domain of proper journalism. Amongst the how many hundred millions of internet users and hobby news hounds and bloggers are a growing number of very talented and very well informed writers but they are far from being a substitute for good journalism. Journalism itself is clearly in the decline, the pieces hastly written for the internet, even from respectable sources are not worth reading most of the time. Particularly for health news quality reporting is rare and needed badly.

    The internet is still early in the learning curve, like the industrial revolution with no regard for environment and workers, everything goes. Until the internet has transformed itself it is damaging to the traditional
    publishing industry without being able to act as a real substitute.
    The internet does and will further change the publishing industry. I consider it too early to speak of transformation (and transformation of what exactly?), the potential is there but humans have not changed so the old rules of how news are read and understood and mentally judged and processed all still apply, they just do not work well on the net. A real transformation in this area of perception and changing the social context and habits could take at least another decade.

  7. #7 revere
    February 5, 2009

    highflyer: I think we may romanticize “traditional publishing.” There are wonderful journalists in the print world (Helen Branswell is one example) but it is also the world that brought us yellow journalism, tabloids, the Iraq war, and lots and lots of substandard science stories not to mention terrible reporting of all kinds on all subjects. Routinely. And has for years, decades, centuries. I don’t see the internet as worse. Perhaps no better. Possibly different. But not worse and there is certainly more variety.

  8. #8 M.Randolp;h Kruger
    February 5, 2009

    Here is a news flash…. If BF does come rolling down the pike the first thing to go WILL be the newsprint people. Couple of reasons. 1. People to read it. 2. People to print it. 3. People to deliver it or prohibitions from movement 4. No power or paper to print it. Thats in a high CFR event anyway.

    Indeed, Helen and others might have to go to work for the aforementioned and not mentioned just to get the news out (Breitbart). Most newsies are like my mom who was a journalist and PR person for 50 years, they would walk barefooted into a flu ward if they thought they could get a good story out of it. This would be the game of the century and maybe 1/2 of a millennia.

    Might want to consider that Revere for future reference. You are a doc and they would press you into service as they will the Dem from CT…. Live from EM…. its Helen B! Question is whether it would be a step up or down?

    All kidding aside, TV is a very people and manpower oriented operation. The internet might be the last thing to go before CONELRAD and the indian head on the TV take over. You have touched on this before about the what ifs. All of these sites IMO ought to have a doc in the box on call that could assist in these times. Our state Senate is taking just that item up along with many more relating to pandemics this year. Revision of the Good Samaritan laws, allowing vets by proxy to provide healthcare, or if comm is down to have no liability.For those who do respond there will be a life insurance policy implemented as well. How about EM as an officially sanctioned government information site?

    Think about it Revere. I would rather have Helen B. and/or others blogging away with your stuff as relayed than not having you in the trenches. An idea only of course.

  9. #9 highflyer
    February 6, 2009

    I am certain not to romanticize what I call proper journalism, it is alive (although not well) where I come from. The US landscape is very different. Not that I have the time to read them all, but Germany has first class newspapers and not only one of them, Süddeutsche, Frankfurter and Die Zeit, to name only the larger and not subject specific ones. Pardon, I have yet to come across a single US newspaper that can compare itself to any of them. Our only tabloid is easy to ignore. If I want to find good information about whatever subject I am unfamiliar with, even if that is information regarding US news, I often find more information and better written articles here. And the market for German language is small. Since we are also talking about publishing, guess where the variety and number of titles was highest with a large margin in the world? Yes, German language. Why? Because we protected the book price.
    It is all about money and the US (as some other but not all other countries) has sold out long ago and cheap. And we all only get what we pay for. It is an illusion to think, that unpaid publishing of high quality is more than a few islands here and there in an ocean of utter noise.
    But certainly your blog can be regarded as one of the islands, so we as readers all profit from your positive bias towards the internet.

  10. #10 inkadu
    February 6, 2009

    Fact checked,researched and well presented news is still a domain of proper journalism.

    In that case, the domain of “proper journalism,” is about 3% of the market.

    I think we really need to think about why we read science stories written by journalism majors and governmental policy stories written by folks who only know what politicians tell them.

    The reality is, that for the most part, journalists are paid to be available to write regularly for a publication. You can’t run a magazine or a newspaper or a newsroom by having a board of 400 experts on every issue. So instead, we have journalists who can quickly write stuff up. It’s about speed, quantity, and reliability.

    The best people to write about a field are the people who have studied it intensely. The internet (ideally) allows people who are interested in learning about a subject the ability to go to the source. They don’t have to go to the library or have a subscription to Scientific American, Nature, or The Lancet if they are curious about superconductive magnetic infindibulators, fly/human genome combinations, or rage-inducing plagues. Even some succesful publications prove the rule. The Economist doesn’t have reporters so much as it has researchers who know their areas very well.

    We still need reporters to report straight news, politics, etc. We will still need journalists to do investigations and write essay-length reports in Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly (or books on campaigns). But for a lot of other stuff, we won’t.

    And from this week’s testimony on Bernie Madoff — the Wall Street Journal was handed the story years before the scandal finally broke and they refused to move on it; probably because they were afraid of pissing off a lawyered up power broker. Sometimes what lends “proper” journalism its edge — institutional credibility — is ultimately a weakness. If the guy testifying this week on Madoff had gone to blogs instead of the Wall Street Journal, things would have moved much more quickly. And the Downing Street Memo would never have been a story.

    And some people talk like all print journalism is great, and all internet journalism is hackish. There is good and bad on both sides. Some internet journalism is more like a cliqueish newsletter. But some cliquish newsletters are considered magazines, therefore print journalism, therefore somehow akin to Der Spiegel — which is completely nonsensical.

  11. #11 Heraclides
    February 12, 2009

    I’ll have to read others’ comments later (I’m all out of time!), but a quick thought: while using all available sources is fine for people with good critical judgement, a concern I have is that many people are hopeless at sorting the wheat from the chaff, to be polite about it. This tends to play in the hands of the scare-mongering from the anti-vaccine crowd, etc., who are then in a position to exploit it. “Citizen journalism” is a mixed blessing. I think a weakened media isn’t helpful either, as too much junk slips past the net.

    All of this isn’t helped by some people being willing to reach far past their knowledge to make judgements, rather than recognise their own limitations and seek out genuine expertise in the relevant area. (Which, of course, raises the problem of how you judge that!)