August 8, 2014

When there’s a medical crisis, there’s also a lot of news. Here’s a guide on where to go so that you understand the nature and context of that crisis and all that news. This guide is meant for readers but some tips work for journalists, too.

I spoke with Dr. Tom Linden, Glaxo Wellcome Distinguished Professor of Medical Journalism at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Dr. Seema Yasmin, a doctor of public health, a professor at the University of Texas, Dallas, and a health reporter at the Dallas Morning News; Arthur Caplan, Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics and Director – Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center’s Department of Population Health; and Dan Childs, managing editor for ABC News’ Medical Unit.

Go to the source

“Question everything,” Dr. Yasmin said, “and don’t be afraid to go to the source.”

Caplan suggests starting directly at the following sources when you want to get information about a medical crisis, an outbreak or an epidemic from medical billing company.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
National Institutes of Health
Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority

Dr. Linden also recommends the following sources for sorting through the news and gathering a bigger picture of what’s happening:

EurekAlert, which is run by The American Association for the Advancement of Science (“It’s kind of a compendium of news releases from all areas of science. Most of the major medical journals do post there.”)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Mayo Clinic
— The CDC also has a page for emerging infectious diseases
— And a page from the CDC called Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which turns information around fast offers critical reviews of stories and it’s run by Gary Schwitzer, a journalist who has covered healthcare

“I would say go to the same sources that journalists do,” Dr. Linden said. “That’s really what I’d do if I want to find out what’s the context for a story or what’s the bottom line. I won’t settle for the daily journalism, I’ll go to the best source I can find.”

Savvy online users should be able to figure out terms they don’t understand, he said.

“Don’t leave it to the journalists to give you the bottom line,” he said.”If you’re really a savvy and interested news consumer, look for the bottom line yourself.”

For journalists: Caplan also recommends looking to infectious disease departments at nearby medical schools, as well as someone who deals with safety in a hospital setting, such as a safety manager.

“They might bring an interesting perspective to the story.”

Dr. Yasmin also recommends the person at local hospitals dedicated to infection control. They’re going to be the most stressed out, she said, but they can also talk numbers and strategies for prevention.

If you want the word of an expert, Childs also recommends the CDC, “but they may also be pretty slammed. So it might make sense to reach out to an organization like IDSA (Infectious Disease Society of America) who can offer up one of their experts. There are also many universities and medical centers that can offer experts to talk in these situations, and they will often be eager to get their experts into the spotlight on major happenings.”

At universities and hospitals, while it might seem quickest to go right to the source, Dr. Yasmin also encourages checking with the media contact, who may have cell numbers or suggestions for other sources, too.

Dr. Linden encourages journalists to keep pushing for sources, too.

“Don’t accept the first or second or third source interview,” he said. “Also go to databases and journals and confirm that what you hear is correct.”

Dr. Yasmin, who worked for the CDC, said it takes time for interviews with the press to get approved and you’re going to hear talking points. Consider these sources as well and don’t be afraid to cross the border (via phone or email) to get them:

European CDC
— Public Health England

Consider the source

“Why do we care what Donald Trump says about Ebola?” Caplan asked.

Just because something is in the news doesn’t mean that everyone gets to have a voice about it.

But you should look for people, journalists in particular, covering whatever the medical situation is from that country, Dr. Yasmin said.

“They have a perspective that we can’t have in the U.S. or in Europe,” she said. “They will find the story.”

(I have a Twitter list of journalists covering the Ebola outbreak from West Africa and the U.S. See here.)

For journalists: EurekAlert is a good place to find sources who know what they’re talking about thanks to articles that contain contact information, Dr. Linden said. Get in touch with experts quickly and ask questions not just about the current situation, but context and background.

Find the stories and perspectives that aren’t getting told

Look into the stories of the medicines used to treat a disease, Caplan said, where does it come from, who makes it, how much of it do they have? With the Ebola outbreak, there are stories asking why two American missionaries were treated when people in West Africa were not. Caplan answered that by looking at where the drug came from for The Washington Post.

For journalists: To find those stories that aren’t being told, or ones that are just being told incorrectly, look at policies and organizations involved. Who’s paying? Where does the money come from for treatment, aide, transportation and public information campaigns?

When she reports, Dr. Yasmin wants color, context and perspective, she said, “and I don’t get that from government officials.”

She does, however, from people who work for non-governmental organizations and academics, people who aren’t just experts in the illness, but in the history and context of it.

Slow down

“I think when a story like this breaks, people are sometimes a little bit eager to say, this thing is spreading and it’s dangerous,” Caplan said.

But not all infectious diseases are created equal.

Ebola, for instance, is horrible if you get it, but it’s hard to catch, Caplan said. It’s not the flu. Understand how something is transmitted.

And take the time to understand how whatever drugs are involved work. Are they experimental? Are they in clinical trials? The medicine involved isn’t black and white.

“It’s all gray around experimentation,” Caplan said. “It’s all gray and it stays gray for a long time.”

For journalists — don’t sensationalize

“There’s nothing worse than causing panic,” Caplan said. “Your first duty is not to completely panic the world. Tabloid treatment of epidemics do that.”

If you’re not normally a health reporter, Dr. Linden said, get educated as fast as you can about the current crisis “and don’t shoot from the hip. If you don’t do your homework, you’re going to convey misinformation, or just as serious, you will not provide context. Not providing context is almost as bad as conveying misinformation.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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