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
  • GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS MANAGER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a Government Affairs Manager to support our legislative and administrative advocacy efforts in Colorado. This new, mid-level position will report...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance, a leading grassroots conservation advocacy organization for over 30 years, seeks a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help...
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...