No news is bad news for public health

Losing local news sources and public health reporters hampers disease detection and outbreak response.

 

Every holiday season, tens of thousands of people flock to Southern California’s Disneyland Resort to see the holiday light displays and the jolly costumed characters. But just days before Christmas 2014, an uninvited visitor stalked the park: measles. Within a month, more than 50 cases had spread across the nation. As public health experts worked to trace the outbreak, they looked to local news coverage to help understand how it spread.

“Local news agencies often know before a state department of public health does about an outbreak going on in their neighborhood,” said Maimuna Majumder, a fellow at Harvard University’s Health Policy Data Science lab, who used local media reports to track the measles outbreak and model the impact that vaccination rates had on its spread. As local newsrooms shrink and shutter, researchers have a harder time tracking outbreaks and communicating public health warnings.  

The Salt Lake Tribune included a Pat Bagley cartoon as part of its coverage of the Disneyland measles outbreak.
Pat Bagley/The Salt Lake Tribune via caglecartoons.com

Majumder’s work is part of a 12-year-old program called Health Map, which scours the internet to provide up-to-the-minute information on disease outbreaks. During the 2014 measles outbreak, Majumder said, local media sources had more frequent counts on disease cases than public health agencies, and they gave researchers important context about the communities where outbreaks occurred. And after the Zika outbreak in 2016, researchers at Stony Brook University compared how The New York Times and Tampa Bay Times covered the spreading disease. They concluded that the local paper was more than twice as likely to provide readers with information about how to protect themselves from the disease.

In rural areas that already struggle with doctor shortages, the loss of rural news also cuts into readers’ knowledge of important health issues. “When you talk about outbreaks, it’s crucial local journalists get the information out,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at John Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

Without a local paper, more people are relying on social media. “There’s no information vacuum in today’s media world, because it’s been filled with social media,” said Yotam Ophir, a health communication researcher at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. But that can be one of the biggest problems during disease outbreaks, because “social media during epidemics is full of misinformation and rumors.” On the other hand, he said, “A responsible news reporter, who has dedicated her life to health reporting, can weed out misinformation.” 

Carl Segerstrom is a contributing editor at High Country News. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Upper Missouri Waterkeeper seeks an Outreach Director to play a key role designing and leading activities and initiatives that engage citizens in water resource decisionmaking,...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...