Keeping tabs on H5N1 media coverage

(CIDRAP Source Weekly Briefing) – Less than 2 years ago, H5N1 seized the headlines.

News coverage of the deadly strain of avian influenza peaked in October 2005, with 878 general news stories and 879 business stories appearing during that month (see graph). In April 2007, monthly coverage had plummeted to only 16 general news stories and 134 business stories, based on a search of the LexisNexis database for the keyword "H5N1" in 50 major international newspapers and 702 leading business publications.

Helen Branswell, medical reporter for the Canadian Press, says she largely prints out information on H5N1 and files it away for later use. "I find, these days, I'm not paying less attention to it, but I'm not writing as many stories about it," says Branswell, who is known for her expertise on covering pandemic influenza. "There was a time when it seemed important to cover everything that moved. Now it seems like it's important to follow the important trends and events and write about them."

Sustaining the former level of attention over time is difficult with so much other news to cover and a pandemic possibly decades away. "It seems to be more of a long-haul experience than I would have recognized when I first started covering this," Branswell says. "It's tough to know how much attention to put on it."

Declining news coverage and fewer government meetings and announcements, rather than the official numbers of human H5N1 cases, account for the waning public interest in the virus, says Peter Sandman, a risk communicator and deputy editor of Weekly Briefing. Very few Americans are probably aware enough of the case numbers to be misled by them, he says. "My guess is that the numbers haven't been driving [public awareness] in the first place," he adds. "By and large, people respond much more to the way that numbers are framed than to the numbers themselves."

But while media coverage strongly influences public opinion, says Greg Dworkin, MD, the number of stories is not a good way to measure what's going on with H5N1."It's neither a good thing nor a bad thing that you don't see as many news stories about this," says Dworkin, editor of the Flu Wiki Web site, which tracks news and information about influenza.

"I think the media will report a change rather than a steady drip of information, so you can't use [media coverage] as a gauge of what's going on," he adds.

Sandman says that the general public's interest was never high enough to be self-sustaining. "It reached a peak—albeit a pretty low peak—when the media coverage peaked, and it declined when the media coverage declined," he says. "But the interest of the pandemic preparedness community hasn't declined. Neither has the interest of health departments and other government agencies.

"And neither should the interest of a corporation that's thinking straight about business continuity."

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