The Challenges of Covering Infectious Disease Outbreaks

The Challenges of Covering Infectious Disease Outbreaks

D3) The Challenges of Covering Infectious Disease Outbreaks

Moderator: Martin Enserink

SARS. Bird flu. Ebola. Zika. Outbreaks of new or re-emerging diseases keep coming, and science, society and the media always seem to be caught off guard. Cases mount, scientists are puzzled, health authorities seem unprepared and panic and disinformation spread.

Woken up by the SARS chaos of 2003, scientists and journalists began alerting the world to the dangers of a new flu pandemic, yet when one finally arrived in 2009, it was so mild that many argued that the risk had been hyped. When the Ebola crisis erupted in West Africa, journalists were just as slow to realize what was going on as the global health community. And no amount of sensible reporting was able to prevent Ebola hysteria in the United States in 2014, fueled by a tweeting New York real estate tycoon who said that U.S. nurses and doctors with Ebola should stay in Africa.

So what is the right way to cover an outbreak? Who can you trust to provide solid information? How do you strike the right balance between false reassurance and fear-mongering? Is it the journalist’s job to fight rumors and conspiracy theories — and how do you do that anyway? Are those promises from drug and vaccine companies believable? What to do if government officials no longer pick up the phone? And what if the president starts tweeting about a virus?

In this session, we’ll explore the causes of the dramatic rise in outbreaks—from ecological disruption and booming travel to human behavior and the advent of the megacity. We will discuss what may be in store in the years ahead, including the growing risk of bioterrorist events like the 2001 anthrax attacks that paralyzed the U.S. East Coast. We will ask whether the world is better prepared now than a decade ago and examine the challenges that journalists face during disease outbreaks and evaluate how we have done in the recent past.