January 22, 2015

Tuesday, President Obama mentioned Ebola in his State of the Union address saying, “the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics.” The next morning, I led a Poynter/Association of Healthcare Journalists seminar to help journalists learn lessons from the Ebola response that we can use when the next epidemic/pandemic emerges. And there will be others.

Over the course of our two days together, we pulled together a list of reliable websites and resources that will help journalists dig deeper, ask better questions and report cautiously but precisely. Here are some of the sites we explored:

ClinicalTrials: This site tracks trials completed, in process and recruiting.

PubMed: There are 24 million citations for biomedical literature here.

MedPage Today: This is written for providers with lots of new news.

HealthMap: Mapping alerts around the globe. Some are official alerts, some media reports.

HealthNewsReview: This site watches media reports about healthcare issues. It’s a great source of story ideas.

Map a list: This site will turn any data table into an interactive map. No coding skills needed.

5 things that are bigger threats to your health than Ebola: From the American Public Health Association.

CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: This offers a look at what people are dying from.

Tiki-Toki: This is a free timeline building tool. It’s especially helpful to track epidemics and the spread of disease.

Google.org/Flu Trends: Based on searches, Google estimates flu outbreaks by state and some cities.

CDC’s FastStats: What kills Americans, sorted to state levels.

We have built a robust Facebook site with tons of resources. (Only seminar participants may post to the site.)

We also explored what kinds of health crisis stories tend to be most scary to readers/listeners and viewers. This chart seemed to us to help journalists think through what stories would require the most caution and careful language.

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Dr. Michael Bell, left

Dr. Michael Bell, left

CDC’s Director of Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Dr. Michael Bell, told journalists that his number one concern is the rising number of antibiotic resistant viruses. Bell said viruses mutate quickly and existing antibiotics increasingly are not effective. New antibiotics may be a decade away, he said, and even when they do come on the market, those drugs may only be useful for a couple of years. Bell said drug companies are not excited about developing new antibiotics because the useful life of the drugs is so short and doctors are constantly trying to minimize the use of those drugs.

Dr. Barbara Reynolds

Dr. Barbara Reynolds

“I am really REALLY worried about antibiotic resistant diseases,” said Dr. Barbara Reynolds, CDC’s crisis communications senior advisor. “The things that frighten me are the things that spread, that I cannot protect myself against and have to depend on other people acting responsibly.”

She said she is “disappointed” that people have chosen not to get inoculated against diseases for which vaccinations are highly effective. Reynolds said one reason so many Americans may be lax about getting vaccinations is “the diseases we are trying to protect against, our grandparents saw them and people today have not seen those diseases.” Reynolds told the journalists that what scientists call the “herd immunity” comes when most people are inoculated against a disease are not at risk yet. “We are not at a point in the US when we are going to have widespread diseases,” that could have been prevented by inoculations. But she added, “We are not immune to the possibility. Last year was the highest number of measles cases in decades, it is unfortunate.”

Previously: Covering Ebola: A Poynter Conversation

The readers’ quick guide for understanding a medical crisis

The workshop, funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, was the first of six McCormick Specialized Reporting Institutes planned for 2015. The workshop also produced a page of resources for reporters covering Ebola and infectious disease.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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