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A Nieman Foundation guide for covering swine flu

SHOWCASE | October 23, 2009

As new outbreaks of H1N1 flu continue to disrupt families, schools and communities across the country and around the world, the Nieman Foundation has put out a comprehensive online guide for journalists. It offers reporters and editors tools to understand the complexities of the disease; debunk misconceptions, and ask the right questions. Written in conjunction with a number of experienced health reporters, the guide is designed to help fight both pandemic hype and pandemic fatigue in the press.

By Ellen Tuttle
(617) 495-2342

CAMBRIDGEThe Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard has launched a comprehensive online guide to covering pandemic flu. Written by and for journalists, www.coveringflu.org is a one-stop resource designed to help reporters, editors, producers and other media professionals understand the complexities of the flu story. It also offers guidance and best practices for reporting on the topic.
Journalists using the Nieman guide can quickly access essential elements of the flu story and learn from veteran reporters and editors who have covered outbreaks such as SARS, avian influenza, and the first wave of H1N1 in spring 2009. They also can discover how to maintain their independence and continue to exercise rigorous journalistic inquiry when called on by the government and/or public health officials to share messages with the public in times of crisis.
As misconceptions about the flu, the H1N1 vaccine, government preparedness and other issues continue to swirl and confuse the public, careful, well researched reporting on the topic is more important than ever. And with both seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccination campaigns and other response measures coming into full swing this fall and winter, coverage that neither sensationalizes nor sugarcoats the news is crucial.
In explaining the importance of the guide, the Nieman Foundation’s special projects manager and site editor Stefanie Friedhoff, shown at right, said, “We believe that understanding the subject matter well and knowing where to turn for accurate information is the best way for journalists to avoid the pitfalls of both pandemic hype and pandemic fatigue. Our guide will help these journalists – whether seasoned health correspondents or general assignment reporters – provide nuanced reporting on topics that are too often painted in black and white. In the process, they will perform a vital public service.”
Nieman Foundation Curator Bob Giles added, “Journalists covering H1N1 need to provide context and clarity on a subject rife with uncertainty, change and confusion. Our guide is meant to assist them in their task.” Over time, the Nieman guide will be updated and expanded as an online aid for journalists reporting on other health crises.
Topics on www.coveringflu.org include: 
  • A History of Pandemics
    A quick overview of past pandemics that shape current discussions—the Spanish Flu in 1918-19 and the swine flu scare in 1976—as well as other pandemics.   
  • Glossary
    A list of the major terms used by officials and scientists, and their definitions.

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