As some of you may know, I am the co-chair of the Youth Services Committee for Brooklyn’s Community Board Six. I’ve served on the committee for several years, and in fact The LAMP was born from my work there. Last night we had our first meeting of the year, and were given a presentation by a representative from the New York City Health Department about the steps they are taking to combat the seemingly imminent H1N1 virus. The information she provided was excellent, and if you live in the city I do suggest you visit the flu information section of the DOH website.
When we arrived at the obligatory Q&A portion of the presentation, I raised my hand and asked if, among the various public awareness campaigns planned, they had anything in place to address misinformation from the media. The response was essentially that they have a PR department.
Really? That’s it?
When the H1N1 virus first broke last spring, the media descended on the story with zeal. Of course, it is part of the job of news media to keep us informed, but what happened last spring went far beyond adequate coverage, both in the volume of stories reported and the level of drama within them. As reported by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism, 31% of the news stories sampled in the week of April 27-May 3 were about the H1N1 virus–as PEJ further points out, this was the same week in which Barack Obama reached the 100-day mark of his presidency, Arlen Spector switched party affiliations and Chrysler declared bankruptcy. By April 26, before nearly one-third of the media was devoted to the flu, traffic to cdc.gov spiked a whopping 442%. Extensive coverage is no doubt a product of a 24-hour news cycle with space to fill, but as previously stated, there was plenty of other news in the spring that perhaps deserved more coverage and analysis.
With so much media coverage, it can be even more difficult than usual to determine what to trust. It would behoove the DOH not only to send messages about how to avoid or vaccinate against the flu, but to establish themselves as the definitive first source of information for New York residents. I know that this is partly the point of their public awareness campaigns, and that the DOH is not a news outlet (maybe they should be?), but they should be prepared to deal with misinformation and help people cut through the noise to get them through to what they need to know.