Effect Measure

It turns out that we were not the only ones musing on the relationship between the news business and the flu business. Dr. Michael Osterholm, is the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP), and also Editor-in-Chief of the CIDRAP Business Source, a subscription newsletter offered to the business community on pandemic (and similar) matters. Dr. Osterholm’s name has appeared here often, perhaps most memorably as the author of the “We’re screwed” observation. A couple of weeks before my recent post he had written to the business community:

The collapsing newspaper business is no doubt devastating for its shareholders and employees.

[snip]

But what concerns me most is the = collateral=20 damage of newsprint’s free fall. The reliability of current news intelligence depends on who collects the information and how they interpret the events and conditions they are reporting. Old-style professionally trained = journalists who=20 have chalked up many miles on their beat-weary shoes, together with their seasoned editors, genuinely provide an information value-add that defies easy measurement or description in economic terms.

Particularly in this world of almost instantaneous global connections, I believe that the demise of old-style newspaper skills and service will mean for you the difference between having professionally investigated, vetted, and edited information versus some blogger’s opinion portrayed as being of equal value. In the business world, where timely and actionable information is often equated with money, what will you now do to compensate for that lost community and even global intelligence? (CIDRAP Business Source, January 22, 2009)

He then asks the same question we did: now who will bring us the news? Like us, he points to the internet as the obvious replacement and sounds the usual cautions about it: what kind of business model will sustain it, what about the reliability of the information, how can it replace the people that gathered the news? In addition to other planning needs, he observes, we need to take into account the deteriorating news business.

It’s not just flu, either. Like us, the peanut butter/salmonella tale has been on his mind, leading Dr. Osterholm wrote another Business Source column on the subject. It’s worth quoting (especially since it mentions us), since he explicitly mentions the role of blogs:

What is also clear is that I’m certainly not the only one worried about this dilemma. Ironically, even bloggers?whose commentary is free?are concerned about what’s happening to their sources of information, journalists whose salary depends upon a rapidly failing economic model.

Case in point: Just this week, a highly respected journalist with extraordinary expertise in infectious disease, particularly in the area of influenza, found herself at the heart of this very issue. I’m talking about Helen Branswell of the Canadian Press

Take a minute to read today’s entry by a writer who goes by the moniker “revere” for the blog Effect Measure.

When I read Helen’s comment, I knew I couldn’t describe the dilemma better.

Don’t get me wrong; we all need to be careful about how we use the sphere of blogs, owing to the unknown credibility of the authors. But Effect Measure is one I read every day. Responding to today’s entry, another credible source, “DemFromCT,” offers a link to today’s Time Magazine piece by Walter Isaacson, which I might point out is, ironically, available for free. It’s a must read, too.

I realize this column is a departure from my usual style. In a sense, I’m acting as an aggregator of content?and providing some context. I?m also validating DemFromCT and revere as good and reliable sources. I’ll continue to point out such sources in future columns?and continue to serve as an aggregator you can trust. (CIDRAP Business Source, February 5, 2009)

I have two reasons for using this pull quote from CIDRAP Business Source. The first is shameless self-promotion. If CIDRAP is giving us a nod, we’re not going to waste it. The more important reason is that it signals significant changes in the notion of “authority” in the age of the internet. While there is a lot of chaff on the internet, that is also true of traditional media. After all, these are the folks that brought us “yellow journalism,” tabloids, Fox News and the Iraq War, to name a few achievements. Many of their most important stories are completely unsourced (“reliable sources,” off the record comments, “a government spokesperson who spoke on conditions of anonymity”, etc.). At least bloggers mostly link to their original sources and their versions of what they say about them can be checked. Before the internet most of us were confined to just a few news sources. Now we have the opposite problem of too many. But in specialized areas, like flu news, readers who want and need to know what is happening have begun to develop a sense of what is reliable and what adds value, based on the numerous triangulations and cross checking between many different sources. Authority grows from the content, up, not from a name or a professional degree, down.

That’s an idealized picture, of course. Many people search the internet for self-validating information. Evidence is not that important to them. But many more people really want to know and are prepared, as is Dr. Osterholm, to use non-traditional sources when it makes sense to do so. In his case he has other reasons to trust us and DemFromCT beyond just what we write, but the fact that we are a daily read is indication that our content adds value, even for someone as knowledgeable as Michael Osterholm. It is a reciprocal relationship. We link often to CIDRAP because it is one of the most important sources in the infectious disease world. But they can’t be everywhere and see everything or have every relevant perspective. Like everyone else, they are actively combing the internet for a nugget here, a pearl there, the odd piece of information somewhere else. And he asks the business community if they have also made this step:

We’re in a transition to alternative media right now. The fact that the discussion about flu reporting and Helen’s response showed up in a blog and nowhere in the mainstream media sends a message that some reporting and critical analysis is already better in this alternative media sphere.

[snip]

Know whether you have an information sentinel and distributor inside your company. I’m not talking about the person or team scanning newspapers or information services for mentions of your brand. I’m referring to someone who is monitoring nontraditional sources, looking for critical events and information, aggregating those findings, and sending reports to the right people in your organization.

We’re glad to be thought reliable. We know there are many sources on the internet who aren’t. The folks at CIDRAP are able to tell the difference. We aren’t seeking to be named authorities. We have our own professional lives and the recognition that goes with what we do there. Here, it’s about making public health ready and able to withstand a shock to the system like a flu pandemic. If we can help CIDRAP and many others do that, it’s enough for us.

Comments

  1. #1 Kobie
    February 7, 2009

    What better profit is there than making a country (Africa, UK, Spain, Brazile, etc) more resistant to and resliant of a pandemic.

    2 quotes:

    “A plan is only as good as those that can Carry it out”

    Admiral Agwunobi’s comment “I can not lead people who are unable to follow”

    These new blogs inform the public but can also involve them. The best authority on what works is those who use it not those who think it may work.

    Just a thought. Prep early – prep often.

    Kobie
    http://www.newfluwiki2.com
    “Prepping like there is no tomorrow is wront. Prep like you are going to make it – and take others with you” – Kobie (as seen on the internet ;-)

  2. #2 Rich
    February 7, 2009

    The decline of newspapers is bad for reporting on these issues. OTOH, most newspaper science & health reporting is horrible. There are a handful of decent reporters with a science beat adn even “august” papers like the washington Post frequently communicate utter stupidity on science issues. People concerned with public health need to be thinking how to reach the public w/o the fileter of dead tree media idiots and without the numbing dull and often confusing jargon-laden writing of the field.

  3. #3 JJackson
    February 8, 2009

    This whole area is crucial and has been worrying me for a while.

    P.S. sorry about the length this started as a quick comment and seems to have spiralled a bit.

    I basically used the same route to get their as you. I wrote a jargon guide on Birdflu because I was not happy with some of the MSM coverage – only to find a much better one for journalists by Sandman & Lanard. I wrote a contrast and compare on a two articles covering a bird flu story – Jason Gale of Bloomberg played Helen Branswell’s part with the villain played by a low circulation local from the British midlands. Having done a paragraph by paragraph savaging I felt guilty and added a caveat emptor codicil basically making a point similar to Helen’s that you should always bear in mind that the author may never have written on the subject before and have had half a day to research and write if he/she was lucky. That gets us to the problem of who pays for the boots on the ground which is the current, and growing, problem. Osterholm’s is asking the same question one level up; he is bemoaning the loss of the experienced correspondent’s value ad but that is just another symptom of the underlying problem which is a loss of data collection capacity. Data here is everything traditionally collected by a wire service or news corp. Like all databases you can only query the data collected and what you collect determines how useful it is. In our case what you collect is decided by the assignment editors and reporters which is exactly the resource Osterholm is seeing drain away because they are paid for by subscriptions and advertising both of which depend on circulation; which is a fraction of what it was. How then do we pay for it and where did the circulation go? To the web is the usual answer to where the subscribers go but many of the sites I go to (including this one) are providing links to and analysis of data collected elsewhere. This site covers research papers (data much of which is ultimately traceable back to taxation) but it is the loss of the investigative reporter and the foreign correspondent which forms the source data for many our most critical decisions. The web is fantastic in that so much of it is free I can now read not only the Times but the LA Times, NY Times and news papers from all over the world but is this a good trade off if they are all using the same wire service as the basis for their reports, we seem to have an explosion of new news sources but what we have is an explosion in the dissemination and analysis of a smaller set of reliable data. Note the reliable bit because there is also an explosion of direct reportage by Joe public, while these are often excellent they tend to be single sources of unknown independence.

    There is also the volume and bias problem. We have always filtered our news sources; our choice of daily paper pigeonholed us but most at least paid lip service to balanced reporting. With the internet it is much easier to get all of your information from a set of sites basically promoting the same position and not be aware of just of fringe/biased they are. It is nice to see Randy here arguing a contrary position but there are plenty of sites where he would be a lefty and revere viewed as mentally unbalanced. How is this going to be reflected in the polarisation of society when a whole generation have grown up with these, and social networking sites, as their primary news source? The related problem is the volume of information. The normal solution is to use a search engine with most searches giving many pages of links, which do you choose? To help you they are prioritised either because someone paid Google or because that link had more hits. Even the hits weighting has a built in bias, if you are searching in English you will get more American links because more Americans use the engine. There is a new generation of special interest search engines, one of the first is targeting the black community in the US and if you search for ‘hair’ it is more likely lead you to dreadlocks than dyes for the platinum blondes. I see the logic but again worry about the danger of trying to co-exist if some of us use the ‘Christian Right’ engine and some the ‘Caliphate’ or ‘Far-Left’ engine.

    There are some things which we deem so fundamental we pay for them with taxation. Where that line is drawn varies from country to country. National defence and some sort of road system seem fairly universal; I suppose they make your core infrastructure – which is also very much a current theme here. I suspect the revere’s wouldn’t mind health care added to the US’s list and in my country (the UK) it is. We also have a publically funded attempt at unbiased news in the form of the BBC. Technically the BBC is not paid for from general taxation but is funded by a licence to own a television but obviously it provides radio, web and other services from the fee. Given near ubiquitous TV ownership this is a defacto household poll tax. In democracies we require the public to elect representatives based on the policies they promise to enact on our behalf. Informed consent needs as complete and accurate data as possible.
    However we pay for information be it taxation, subscription or advertising we need to guard against it being filtered through any intermediaries’ agenda.
    JJ

  4. #4 Jonathon Singleton
    February 8, 2009

    JJ, I’d actually like to explore one of your comments further by way of example — an email that I sent to the Australian Director, Research Development, Australian Biosecurity CRC, several days ago.

    You write, “[The] underlying problem… is a loss of data collection capacity. Data here is everything traditionally collected by a wire service or news corp. Like all databases you can only query the data collected and what you collect determines how useful it is…”

    But how to make a determination on “useful” data, when a wire service or news corp goes to national government websites and then sources outdated data posted as “authoritative” reference info!?!

    To: “Dr Moira Jean McKinnon, Director, Research Development, Australian Biosecurity CRC”

    Friday 6th Feb, 2009

    Howdy Dr McKinnon,

    I was reading an electronic Medical Journal of Australia (eMJA) article you co-wrote with John S Horvath and Leslee Roberts when working as the main advisor in communicable diseases for the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing in 2006, “The Australian response: pandemic influenza preparedness” — MJA 2006; 185 (10 Suppl): S35-S38 @ http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/185_10_201106/hor10906_fm.html

    The world has changed since you co-wrote the concluding paragraph, The future. I wonder if you’d mind awfully if I remix-updated several points in light of recent developments!?!

    The future (excerpt): “It may be that the world has already averted a pandemic by the actions it has taken [since 1997] in response to H5N1, such as extensive culling of poultry and isolation of infected humans. Yet all preparations may seem insufficient if the world comes face to face with a rapidly spreading novel virus like the [one hyper-evolving at the moment via mutated H1N1, antiviral resistant H2H-H5N1]. Rapid detection of human-to-human transmission, early and intensive implementation of containment measures, and the… [immediate mass manufacture and public distribution of effective clade combination prepandemic H5N1 vaccines eg. CSL’s Panvax®] are our best strategies for responding.”

    Dr McKinnon, I’m feeling more than a bit irritated with your former employer, The Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Official H5N1 treatment information current for 06 February, 2009, re: the use and efficacy of antivirals fails to acknowledge the bizarre hyper-evolutionary emergence of 2008/9 H1N1 containing the antiviral resistance mutation H274Y.

    Oz Gov Dept of Health and Ageing Excerpt: “The Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing has compiled a list of frequently asked questions. The answers are listed in the categories below and are updated as new information becomes available…

    Is there treatment for bird flu in humans?
    Anti-viral treatments that are currently used successfully in the treatment of influenza would be used in the treatment of bird flu.”

    Dr McKinnon, I have just written two international public health blog postings [dealing with] the serious implications of this subject — a raw subject which seemingly only one national government on this planet (Japan) understands enough to invest in and prepare for..

    H5N1 Blog — “Finding the weak spots in H5N1″ (February 04, 2009)
    H5N1 Blog — “Japan will fly its nationals home in a pandemic” (February 03, 2009)

    Cheers Then:*) Jonathon

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