Fostering debate: journalists cover H1N1

When is enough too much?

by Emily Graff

Media gathers at a conference on H1N1 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Photo courtesy CNS News)
Media gather at a conference on H1N1 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Photo courtesy: CNS News)

by Emily Graff

Newspapers have stocked their headlines with it, television has devoted countless broadcasts to it and reporters have ‘tweeted’ themselves into exhaustion over it.

Since April, influenza A (H1N1) has made its way into almost every aspect of our lives. From Safeway offering 10 per cent off grocery purchases if customers get their flu shot at the store, to Elmo teaming up with federal agents to sing about the benefits of washing your hands, the flu is everywhere.

As the first influenza pandemic in 41 years, health reporters have been charged with the task of covering this vast, complex and controversial story and doing it well. So how do journalists tackle it? They keep it real and put it into perspective.

The Numbers Game

Since April, Canada has been one of the countries hardest hit by the H1N1 virus. Before health officials stopped counting confirmed cases in July, there were an average of 20 people sick per 100,000 people throughout the country. Mexico, where the outbreak began, had an average of 7.1 people sick per 100,000.

Figures like that seem scary without anything to compare them to.

Andre Picard is an award-winning health reporter with the Globe and Mail. (Photo courtesy of Andre Picard)
Andre Picard is an award-winning health reporter with the Globe and Mail. (Photo courtesy: Andre Picard)

Andre Picard of the Globe and Mail has seen everything from AIDS to SARS surface during the time he’s been covering health. He’s seen a few reporters run away with a story, too.

He finds it essential that journalists keep themselves grounded in the facts and not get swept up by the newness of the virus or the numbers that come with it.

“We get caught up in these things and we forget that all infectious diseases have a very predictable pattern. If you sit back and you give that context and you give a bit of that history it makes the news less frightening and more digestible,” Picard said.

Picard noted that journalists originally had trouble leaving the numbers alone when covering the SARS outbreak, but he sees things slowly changing.

“I think we’re being much better. I think we were doing that at the outset with all these level five, level six alerts from the World Health Organization, but I think the coverage is more responsible now,” he said.

Sharon Kirkey, who has reported on health issues for 15 years and is currently with Canwest News Services, pointed out that the 80 Canadian deaths attributed to H1N1, while tragic, are still miniscule when looked at on a grand scale.

“You put that into context of the number of deaths in a normal flu season and the numbers are still incredibly small,” she said.

And she’s right. The garden variety, seasonal flu usually kills well over 2,000 Canadians a year, even up to 8,000. Worldwide, annual deaths from the seasonal flu range from 250,000 to 500,000 people.

The New Kid

Picard thinks that when it comes to H1N1, most media outlets actually have their coverage backwards. They’re lumping all the attention on a new influenza strain instead of focusing on more deadly foes doing damage to human lives.

“You know, malaria kills more people everyday than H1N1 has killed in the whole world. Let’s have some of that in our perspective.” Picard said, his voice tight with frustration.

So where are the malaria stories?

The way CTV’s Angela Mulholland sees it, H1N1 is the new mystery illness on the medical playground and is getting all the attention because of that.

“It’s an unknown and everybody loves an unknown.” Mulholland said. “It’s the basis for every horror film out there: an unknown killer descending upon them. Something you don’t know is coming to get you and kill you. People love that idea.”

And that idea sells.

The interest in H1N1 stories remains constant, showing that the public has an immense appetite for anything flu.

Nielson Online, a company that monitors and measures Internet chatter, demonstrated that when they released a graph showing that, by April 27th, H1N1 was taking up 2 per cent of all Twitter posts.

The popular social networking site that allows for headline-like updates boasts 3 million users posting an average of 1.9 million ‘tweets’ per day. Which means that on that one day, about 38,000 of those posts would have been H1N1 related.

Which would help explain why, in the month of May alone, the National Post produced 72 stories on H1N1 with CTV News following close behind at 64. There were people willing and ready to read it.

Conflict and Confusion

Mary Agnes Welch is president of the Canadian Association of Journalists and a reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press. The problem she’s seen with H1N1 coverage stems not from sensationalism, but from confusion.

From scientists who denounce hand washing as a way to prevent the flu, to information suggesting that getting the seasonal flu vaccine increases someone’s chances of contracting H1N1, conflicting information about the flu is everywhere.

This results in debates that are being played out in front of the nation in a highly publicized scramble to keep up with new facts as they are discovered and released.

“With H1N1, there genuinely are huge discrepancies in what the science is saying and what the experts are saying. Every province is doing something different,” Welch said.

John McPhee of The Chronicle Herald explained why that confusion is almost a necessary evil.

Angela Mulholland is a journalist with CTV.ca and is also the editor of the CTV MedNews Express newsletter. (Photo Courtesy: Angela Mulholland)
Angela Mulholland is a journalist with CTV.ca and is also the editor of the CTV MedNews Express newsletter. (Photo courtesy: Angela Mulholland)

“There’s the danger of sensationalizing something that should not be, but when you have so many conflicting opinions on how bad this will be and how it should be handled, you need to get all those points of view in there. You need to get out the information that people need to know without inciting unnecessary fear,” McPhee said.

While some reporters frown on this facts free-for-all, pointing out that these debates often occur within scientific forums that have no time for laymen’s terminology and just confuse readers more, Welch believes otherwise. Readers are quick to string up a journalist that they feel may be squirreling away information.

“You’re kind of caught between a rock and hard place, you don’t want to sensationalize but you don’t want to pull the wool over people’s eyes,” Welch said.

Sometimes You Can’t Win

The H1N1 outbreak has been accompanied by waves of fear and skepticism that seem to rise and ebb with the media’s attention.

On top of the confusion fostered, in some part, by contrasting opinions within the medical, scientific and governmental bodies, is the simple fact that sometimes journalists can’t make everyone happy.

“There’s a lot of accountability that’s going to come at the end of this story. There’s going to be people saying: why did we ratchet up the panic right from the start? Why did the World Health Organization not have a decent way of showing what a pandemic is and what it isn’t? This story’s going to go on long after it’s done,” CTV’s Mulholland said.

Most media outlets are still hyper-aware of the backlash that was generated after the SARS outbreak, when accusations of blanket coverage and fear mongering surfaced.

While the risk is there to do it all over again with H1N1, media outlets seem to weigh the pros and cons of coverage with a more delicate hand this time around.

“There is that balancing act of overkill and keeping the public informed,” the Chronicle Herald’s McPhee said.

Jodie Sinnema, health reporter with the Edmonton Sun, acknowledged this balance saying that journalists and the public alike are holding their breath to see what happens next.

“There’s a real balance in reporting this; whether or not we’re hyping it up way too much, because when people die from seasonal flu we don’t do a story on every single person who’s died but with H1N1 we have,” Sinnema said.

In The End

The question remains: with H1N1 continuing to play such a big part in the 24-hour news cycle, has some transitory line been crossed that would allow someone to rightly call the story overdone?

So far, it was a resounding ‘no’ amongst health reporters. The coverage is being viewed as sensible and warranted, as long as questions needing an answer are still being posed. And nothing should be considered unnecessary until it’s all said and done.

“You have to include it all. Everybody’s got a story with this,” Mulholland said.

The Globe and Mail’s Picard says that these things cannot truly be weighed until the aftermath, but he is wary that flu stories are continuing to be produced without a high infection rate to push them along.

“It seems out of proportion but we just don’t know yet. There’s a lot of flu virus floating around and, even though it doesn’t seem too severe, that could change,” Picard says.

One of the things reporters seemed to unanimously agree upon was that their readers are a rational, media savvy crew that does not need to be coddled for fear of inciting mass panic when stories about H1N1 are printed.

“Our jobs are to foster debate and give people a wide breadth of information, even if it causes some confusion,” Welch said. “If we didn’t report on the scientists that say hand washing won’t help or that the adjuvant in the vaccine isn’t effective, then we’d be accused of tunnel vision and of covering stuff up.”