This, our first week of classes of the Spring semester, also marked the return of regular publication of the daily student newspaper. Since I’m not behind on grading yet (huzzah for the first week of classes!), I picked up yesterday’s copy and read one of the front-page articles on my way to my office.
And dagnabbit if that article didn’t angry up my blood.
The trouble is, I’m having a hard time figuring out where properly to direct that anger.
The article, which appeared below the fold, was titled “U.S. Health Secretary urges vaccinations”. It drew from a January 26, 2010 conference call between U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and college newspapers about the novel H1N1 flu virus, the prospects for an uptick in novel H1N1 flu in January, the availability of vaccine, and the vulnerability of younger people to this virus. (The article cited Sebelius’s claim that people in the 18- to 24-year-old group who get this flu are six times more likely to be hospitalized than those in other age groups.)
Later in the article, there was some discussion of how the government is trying to use social media to get the word out about flu, vaccines, and ways not to infect your coworkers and classmates.
All of this seemed pretty reasonable, and pretty standard, to me.
But midway through the article, the author of the piece did this thing that I can only assume journalism programs are teaching staff writers on student newspapers to do. He asked students on campus for their views on the novel H1N1 flu and vaccines against it:
[Name redacted], a junior nutritional science major, said she doesn’t believe H1N1 is any different from seasonal flu.
“I think it’s just like any other flu going around,” she said. “You just have to be ready.”
[Name redacted] said she doesn’t plan on getting vaccinated.
“I am never going to get vaccinated,” [name redacted] said. “I’m against it.”
She said she is preventing herself from getting sick by eating nutritious foods to help boost her immunity, exercising, getting of rest and washing her hands before eating.
Sophomore chemistry major [name redacted] said he also doesn’t plan on getting vaccinated, as he isn’t worried about becoming infected with swine flu.
“I feel as though it’s not going to affect my life,” he said. “I feel I will not get it.”
[Name redacted] said he wasn’t doing much to prevent getting sick.
“I’m not doing anything in particular,” he said. “I try to stay healthy in general, but other than that, absolutely nothing.”
Senior nursing major [name redacted] said he was vaccinated to protect himself.
“I found out that the school was offering it for students, and so I thought it would be a great idea to get vaccinated,” he said.
(Note that the students interviewed for the linked story are identified by name in that story. I’ve decided to redact their names here in case they were misquoted, and because even if they weren’t, I’m not comfortable taking them to task here in a way that gives their names lingering negative Google-juice. I’m committed to the idea that people, and especially college students, are capable of learning.)
The junior majoring in nutritional science was the proximate cause of my first facepalm.
I’d be curious to know on what basis she’s claiming that the novel H1N1 is no different from seasonal flu. The fact that you could contract both (and that there are distinct vaccines for the two) would seem to argue for their non-identicality. Plus, the disproportionate rate of hospitalizations of the traditional “college aged” cohort with the novel H1N1 flu but not the seasonal flu seems like it might point to a relevant difference.
Also, I find it interesting (and perplexing) that her strategy for “being ready” for either flu does not involve vaccination (which she’s “against” for reasons not detailed in the article). Rather, she plans to “boost her immunity” with healthy foods, exercise, rest, and hand washing.
Don’t get me wrong here. I would be thrilled if all the students at our university ate lots of nutritious foods, got plenty of rest and exercise, and were scrupulous hand washers. But these steps do not render the body immune to viruses to which it is naïve. I do rather wonder whether this nutritional science major believes “immunity boosting” foods like lemon juice and garlic obviate the need for antiretroviral drugs in the treatment of HIV.
The sophomore chemistry major interviewed here made me sad (as a former member of Team Chemistry), but I reckon he’s probably just coming from a young person’s place of presumptive invulnerability. I’m sure he doesn’t believe he’ll get the flu, and thus sees no point in getting the vaccine. If he lives long enough, he’ll probably amass some data that suggests that our expectations and our actual outcomes are not always in agreement.
I’m not at all surprised that the senior nursing major interviewed for the article chose to get vaccinated. Entrance to our nursing program is extremely competitive, and the students in that program are extremely smart. No doubt the coursework for a nursing degree includes some discussion of the biology of the immune system, and viruses, and vaccines.
Now, as I mentioned above, I’m torn over where I should place my anger here.
On the one hand, I’m kind of angry at the way what seems to be a standard journalistic convention (at least in the universe of daily student newspapers on college campuses) juxtaposes presumably reliable information from experts with whatever a student wandering across the reporter’s path might happen to opine. The expert says X. The student says Y. And no analysis whatsoever of the gap between X and Y, or what it might mean that a student holds Y regardless of the expert opinion that X.
Journalists, what is the point of this juxtaposition? Especially in an article like this, which is not about, say, the difficulty of adding classes, or a proposed student fee increase?
Sure, I can do my own analysis — maybe anticipating that I may have more contagious students to interact with this term than I would have hoped (although I’ve had my vaccines for novel H1N1 and seasonal flu, so I’m not planning to free-ride on the rest of the herd).
But, I’m a wee bit concerned that the major field of the non-vaccinating student quoted at most length in the article may make her appear to the other students reading this story as if she is drawing on relevant expertise, too.
And honestly, if students are reading this article and thinking, “Well, someone majoring in nutritional science said, right there in the paper, that eating healthy foods, and exercising, and getting enough rest, will keep you from getting the flu, and that the vaccine is bad,” that’s pretty dangerous.
Admittedly, a student relying that heavily on an article in the school paper could do better at seeking reliable sources of information. But there’s not a hint in the reporting of the story that the view articulated by the nutritional science might not be credible. Arguably, identifying her major suggests that there is a certain range of topics on which she could be regarded as more credible than students majoring in other fields — the powers of a nutritious diet, presumably, falling within that range.
So is the problem here a stupid journalistic convention? A staff writer who didn’t go the extra mile to provide some analysis, or to put the presumptive expertise of an interviewee in perspective? An interviewee who was speaking with authority she didn’t have the knowledge base to back up?
Or could it be that they are actually teaching nutritional science majors here that foods have the power to render humans immune to influenza?