Reporting on Disease Outbreaks


Earth Journalism Network, Global

When a disease outbreak happens journalists have many stories to tell and the way they tell them can have profound consequences, especially — but not only — if the outbreak is particularly life-threatening, large or novel.

For accurate reporting, it is key that journalists understand and communicate risk clearly.

Inaccurate or misleading reporting can contribute to unnecessary panic or unnecessary deaths if the general public under-react or over-react to news of a disease outbreak.

Key questions to ask in the early stages of an outbreak include: What causes the disease? What harm can it do to people? What level of risk does it pose? How can people protect themselves? Are some people more at risk than others? How can its spread be limited? Can the harm it causes be treated?

To report the answers to such questions effectively journalists need good sources whose information is reliable and relevant. Reporters must also understand terms such as epidemic, pandemic, infectious, vaccine, virulence and pathogen — and be able to explain what they mean to their audiences.

Key sources of information might include scientists, government health departments, drug and vaccine companies, medical doctors and other health workers, community members, and patients and their families.

As a disease outbreak can have many different scientific angles, it is also important for journalists to understand and distinguish the roles of epidemiologists, virologists, ecologists, etc.

Outbreaks are usually caused by a living pathogen — such as a virus, bacterium or single-celled organism like the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria.

Many disease outbreaks are also influenced by environmental factors. These include deforestation, climate change, hunting and bush-meat consumption, poor sanitation in urban environments, and a lack of clean water. This gives journalists a wide range of angles to consider in their reporting.

At the start of an outbreak they may be little solid information about its cause, likely effects and its potential to spread. This is especially true if the disease is new (such as when SARS emerged in 2003) or is caused by a new strain of an existing virus or bacterium. This means that scientists will be learning about an outbreak as it happens.

Journalist must also take care that their reporting does not get in the way of the medical and scientific work that is needed to respond to a disease outbreak. They should also ensure that their reporting of the stories of patients and their families remains ethical and respectful.

No-one can say for sure how a disease will spread and scientists must refine their predictions repeatedly as more information becomes available, so journalists should take to care explain that scientific predictions are not fixed, and can be based on many assumptions.

Journalists should remain skeptical, especially when sources come to them with information. Do drug companies have an interest in exaggerated reports that lead, for instance to panic buying of drugs or national plans to stockpile medicines? Are scientists trying to raise the profile of their research so it gets more funding? Are health officials trying to conceal the scale of the outbreak?

At the same time, the media must avoid sensationalist reports that can contribute to unnecessary fear or misplaced complacency. It is important to report not only what is known about a disease outbreak but also what is unknown.

It is also important to be clear about ways that a disease does not spread. Outbreaks of H5N1 avian flu led consumers in many countries to stop buying poultry, despite their being no evidence that people could get the infection from eating it. This kind of public response was in some places very damaging to livelihoods of people in the poultry sector.

The H5N1 scare also prompted many companies to inflate the prices of face masks, and aggressively market them as a way for people to protect themselves from the disease. However, there was little or no evidence that the masks were really protective as the H5N1 virus was small enough to pass through them.

After initial reports on the news of an outbreak, journalists can focus on reporting why the outbreak happened at this particular time and place, whether it happened before, and what can be done to prevent it happening again? As an outbreak spreads, reporters can shift to asking what its social, economic and environmental consequences are.

And after an outbreak is over, they can ask whether the authorities did enough and if anyone learned any lessons?

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma – Reporting the Swine Flu Outbreak
East-West Media Line: Tips & Tools for Journalists: Covering H1N1
Internews: Training Journalists to Report on HIV/AIDS [PDF]
International Women’s Media Foundation – Reporting on HIV/AIDS in Africa [PDF]
SciDev.Net – How to report a disease outbreak or pandemic
World Health Organization Handbook for Journalists: Influenza Pandemic PDF (2005)