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
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.