A new report finds that journalists covering public health issues see a government and society that is "thoroughly unprepared" for a pandemic flu outbreak.
Public health journalists in the study view the threat of a pandemic as highly serious. They believe a pandemic could lead to potential "societal breakdown," "chaos," and "panic." And, the vast majority of respondents judge the nation's response to pandemic flu to be either insufficient, misdirected, or both.
Peter D. Hart Research Associates wrote the report, which is based on 20 one-on-one telephone interviews conducted from March 3 to 29, 2006, with leading health journalists, representing national and regional media from print and broadcast organizations.
The report was released by the non-profit, non-partisan Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University.
Journalists in the study recognize the federal government has taken positive steps to prepare for a pandemic flu outbreak, particularly toward investing in vaccine research, but overall, they criticize the "generalities" that they view permeate preparedness planning, citing such areas of weakness as unclear government leadership and poor communication with the business community and the public on how to maintain day-to-day life during a pandemic.
For instance, one respondent believed a pervasive divisiveness in the government is hampering preparedness efforts, with a high likelihood that these jurisdictional and political rivalries will only intensify during a crisis.
Reporters also cite problems with emergency hospital preparedness as one of their biggest concerns.
Additionally, the journalists think the media would play an important role during a flu pandemic as a crucial link to the public.
News organizations would have to strike a balance between working with the government to disseminate accurate and timely information to the public, and holding policymakers accountable for pandemic-related decisions and actions.
One respondent believed avian flu could "change life as we know it," and wanted coverage to prepare the public without being alarmist or causing panic. Other journalists are wary of the sometimes "sensational" and "irresponsible" coverage of avian and pandemic flu and suggested that due to the subject's complexity, covering this story should be restricted to journalists with the background and sources to accurately portray the threat.
Journalists also believe the public has adopted a "wait and see" approach to pandemic flu, with few Americans truly understanding the threat or what they can do to prepare.