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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.