Viruses and journalism

29 September 2009

During the more than 30 years that I have studied viruses, I have had many opportunities to speak with journalists of different kinds. For the most part, the print journalists have done a good job at accurately presenting the science, but I cannot say the same for my experience on radio and TV. I want to share some of these recordings and my thoughts about the gap between science and broadcast journalism.

I was interviewed by Katy Pilgrim of CNN in May 2009, shortly after the emergence of swine-origin influenza H1N1. There had been a number of cases in New York City and Ms. Pilgrim was looking for comments on school closings. She came to my laboratory with a cameraman, spent 10 minutes talking with me off-camera followed by 10 minutes on-camera. As you will see in the news clip below that played on that evening’s news, only 10 seconds of my comments were used. Ms. Pilgrim was looking for someone to say that NYC schools should have been closed for the remainder of the academic year. I did not think such closing was warranted by the mild nature of the influenza outbreak. This was not what CNN wanted to hear, so my comments were not used.

What I learned from this interview is that CNN went out looking for a specific story: they wanted to stir up controversy over the fact that the NYC school system remained open. Because in the end, controversy helps ratings. But I didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear, so my comments were not newsworthy.

  • NJ

    At least they noted that you are among the top scientists in the country, which I think most of us who read your paper/posts think too. So something for you to feel good about :)

  • http://www.virology.ws profvrr

    Thank you for the kind comment. I hope I don't sound as though I am complaining that they cut me short; I'm more concerned that they went 'looking' for a specific story, rather than trying to find out the 'truth'.

  • Michael_Day

    It is amazing to me that even beyond the more subtle attempts by news media to find a certain story or specific sound byte, the major news outlets air so much LOUD, SHRILL opinion pieces and even entire shows. Anyone can turn on a major 24 hour news channel, and if they wait long enough, they will find the 10 second (or half hour) spot that will support any notion they may have…and let's not get started on blogs and the internet in general (excluding Virology Blog, of course)

  • http://cassandrawillyard.wordpress.com/ Cassandra Willyard

    This is terrible science journalism. Please know that some of us are trying to get balanced, accurate information to the public without causing panic, and we are listening when scientists tell us we have the story wrong rather than barreling stubbornly forward and cherry picking quotes.

  • http://twitter.com/keystroke keystroke

    That's why I don't have cable TV and instead just read virology blog! :)

  • gsgs

    who decides, how the material is cut and what is finally sent ?
    Was there more time than 10sec if you had said something else ?
    They just wanted to demonstrate that they did the effort to
    ask some expert.
    They could have told you that only 10sec are sent, so you had selected
    that 10sec.message ;-)
    In written media there is more space for material, the reader decides
    what to cut. I'm not happy how they chose the headlines -
    some other editor apparantly choses them so to attract readership,
    truth not important, ambiguities welcome.

  • davedobbs

    On the stories I've known best — the ones I've written on — TV has done an appalling job. Two stories I wrote for the Times Magazine were on subjects soon after taken up by 60 Minutes. Both times I thought, Oh good, 60 Minutes is supposed to be the best (I never watch TV, don't get a signal), should be good. THey were terrible. A story on an deep-brain stimulation experimental surgery veered off on weird tangents, and tried to create controversies by pursuing bogus side issues. A story on Williams syndrome, which usually creates a combination of deficits in cognition and social understanding with an unusual gregariousness, was titled — and played — as “The Joy Gene” — never mind that people with Wms syndrome suffer higher depression rates than average. Both cases much like yours: They went in operating on a certain template (Find Controversy or Find a Feel-good Story) and ignored everything else.

    My story on Williams Syndrome: http://tinyurl.com/2cqdy4
    60 Minutes story on Wms Syndrome: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/01/06/60II/

    My story on DBS for depression: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/02/magazine/02de
    60 Minutes story on DBS: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=2054120n

    As Andy Rooney once said, of Michael Jackson's “Bad”: Bad, bad, bad, bad. Bad bad bad. Really really bad.

  • glock

    FWIW, here's a post from another blog that I thought did a good job of outlining just what you experienced first hand. In this case it's about the Canadian Heath officials actions in light of certain SF vaccine trials data.

    Before that, though I'd like to tell you how much I appreciate your blog. As a layman I feel privileged to be able to eavesdrop on your thoughts, experiences, and the fascinating explanations that make this really complicated stuff, much easier to fathom.

    This is excerpted from the effectmeasure blog

    “The new flu strain (2009H1N1) has spread readily through many populations that would not have had last year's vaccine. How much IF ANY increased risk of the new flu last years vaccine may have resulted in, it is unlikely it would have changed the risk benefit analysis for last year's flu vaccine.

    In other words, even if I knew last year's vaccine would have an impact on the new flu strain, I still would have vaccinated the same population last year, including all children over 6 months of age.

    One of the problems with getting medical information from the news media is the information is frequently turned into a fake crisis, a fake controversy, or a trumped up thing to fear. That's because the news is a commodity and crises, controversies and fear sell news. This news model produces colored glasses news reporters are trained to see the world through.

    The attention this new flu strain has gotten in the media follows a predictable pattern. First, the fear mongering. While there was plenty of reason to take the newly circulating flu strain seriously, there is plenty of reason to take EVERY circulating strain of influenza seriously.

    Then there was the predictable media attack on how public health handled the new strain. You need controversy to keep selling the news so now reporters turned to criticizing public health official's actions. In reality, the pandemic was handled very well, including closing schools at first, then not closing them when the data showed that measure to no longer be effective.

    Making public health actions a fake controversy, of course, gave the public the impression the new flu strain was harmless and the health care community had cried wolf. But the health care community did no such thing. The news media, on the other hand, didn't care. Their job is to market the news. Their job is not to provide valid, actually useful information because that doesn't sell news.

    So now the news media has a new fear and a new controversy to promote. It doesn't matter if the information is true, and more importantly, if the information is given in context. In fact, it sells news to take the information out of context by making it seem like seasonal flu vaccine is possibly dangerous, when the seasonal flu is just as deadly as the new flu strain so the vaccines for each are equally important.

    If the media reported on the Canadian news leak information factually, first they would have waited for confirmation. Epidemiologists from the US and Europe are not seeing the same results.

    Second they would have put the information in context. Knowing last year's vaccine would have increased the risk for the new flu strain wouldn't change the recommendation for last year's vaccine. That would have just put people at risk last year without having very much impact at all on the risk of the new strain. Your kids were going to be susceptible to the new strain regardless.

    In the future you can expect the news media to continue hyping up the fear of the new vaccine. The media will make a point of selling the controversy that the health care community is going ahead with an untested vaccine. The media coverage will, of course, leave out the balance of the risk of the new influenza strain and instead rely heavily on reviewing the hindsight controversy of the 1976 flu vaccine campaign. 33 years of medical advances in influenza vaccine since 1976 will get little if any mention.

    And when reports of medical events that occur after receiving flu vaccine occur, because people die and have medical events every day, vaccine or not, the mews media will play those up as if they are certainly a vaccine risk. Don't expect the news media to put those events in context. There might be a briefly mentioned caveat about ruling out other causes of the medical event. That will predictably be overshadowed by headlines declaring a dangerous vaccine side effect has emerged.

    Then will come the scandalous public health actions of promoting an untested vaccine for a mild influenza strain.

    Truth? Proper context? Doesn't sell news. It's not the news media's job. “

    Posted by: Skeptigirl Author Profile Page | September 27, 2009 3:32 PM

  • Name

    Unfortunately, your experience is far too common. That is what television news has become, and the 24/7 news feed is just par of the problem. That is why our side of the world (non-reporters) frequently use pre-determined talking points, and do not stray “off-message.”

  • Emily

    http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/cnn.htm
    CNN – America's Pravda
    by Geoff Bowie

  • gsgs

    it says :
    30 comments 0 likes 1 point
    but I only get 10

  • http://rybicki.wordpress.com/ Ed Rybicki

    Oh, yes…journalist comes in with a preconceived notion of what the story is, and tries their best to bend your story to what they want.

    And if you don't give the quotes they want, they either don't use them, or quote you out of context or even incorrectly. I almost got sued in South Africa because a print journo completely misstated what I said about a crackpot HIV “cure” – dimethyl formamide – and refused to correct it. And they would have won, too….

    I have learned, late in the day, to only give interviews to people I trust, or who have good reputations. And there are not too many of those around here.

  • http://rybicki.wordpress.com/ Ed Rybicki

    Oh, yes…journalist comes in with a preconceived notion of what the story is, and tries their best to bend your story to what they want.

    And if you don't give the quotes they want, they either don't use them, or quote you out of context or even incorrectly. I almost got sued in South Africa because a print journo completely misstated what I said about a crackpot HIV “cure” – dimethyl formamide – and refused to correct it. And they would have won, too….

    I have learned, late in the day, to only give interviews to people I trust, or who have good reputations. And there are not too many of those around here.

  • Pingback: Viruses and journalism: Off-the-shelf chemicals

  • keveenjones

    Personally i suffered from a trojan virus and luckily the person running it only got my banking info from my online banking and was nice enough to pay off my visa from my checking account.

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