Reporting the Swine-Flu Outbreak

Tips on covering the swine-flu outbreak from a reporter with two decades' experience with health issues ranging from the AIDS epidemic to oyster-related food poisoning.

Reports of a mysterious infection, complemented by pictures of people wearing surgical masks to Mass, create a situation that demands media attention.

But in covering the swine-flu outbreak, journalists have to perform a balancing act when they deliver the news. They must be responsible while they’re striving to be as informative as possible. They must hold the attention of the readers, viewers and listeners without scaring them out of their minds.

With that in mind, here are a couple of suggestions for reporting this story:

  • Get the basic facts first. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already set up an information-packed page on its website. For the latest information on the disease in your part of the world, consult local and state health authorities, especially epidemiologists, who will be tracking the outbreak.
  • Map the outbreak. Tell early on whether the disease seems to pose a threat to your audience — that’s the main reason they’re paying attention to you — and let the proximity of the outbreak shape your coverage. While there’s no reason to sensationalize an epidemic on the other side of the continent, people who might be in its path — in this case, those along the U.S.-Mexico border — need to know what to do.
  • Find experts. Call the nearest medical school or school of public health for more information and suggestions about what people need to do to stay healthy.
  • Keep it simple. When you find an expert, make sure that you understand what that learned individual is saying. If you don’t understand it, your audience won’t. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you might think they’re stupid. Chances are they aren’t.
  • Tell how the disease is — and isn’t — spread. Besides providing common-sense information, this can help ward off hysteria.
  • Look for especially susceptible groups. Be sure to specify people who might be at extra risk, such as infants and elderly men and women, as well as those with compromised immune systems, such as transplant recipients, and tell them what they can do to stay healthy.
  • Keep in touch. Unlike a fire, blizzard or tornado, an outbreak isn’t a one-day phenomenon. Keep calling epidemiologists, medical personnel and public-health officials to get the latest updates. These calls won’t always generate stories, but a responsible reporter needs to stay in the loop. Besides, these folks love to have people pay attention to them, because they’re often overlooked; once you make contact, the good ones will call you first when something happens.
  • Emphasize prevention. In situations such as this, people feel empowered if they are told what they can do to ward off infection, even if it’s nothing more than washing their hands frequently, covering up a cough or sneeze or staying at home if they feel sick.
  • Use graphics. A simple box showing information such as symptoms, what to do and where to go for more information is a great reader- and user-friendly addition to your newspaper or website. Include plenty of phone numbers and links, but resist the temptation to clutter.
  • Be concise. Unless you have a terrific human-interest story, save the fancy prose for your novel. People who are worried enough to read or listen to your story want to be informed and, more importantly, reassured as quickly as possible.
  • Watch your language. People are already anxious, so don’t make the situation worse by using loaded words such as “epidemic.” Even though any public-health official will tell you that just a few cases constitute an epidemic, the word scares people. Use a less loaded word such as “outbreak” whenever possible.