A group of health-care journalists and public health officials have joined up to create a set of voluntary guidelines on what information journalists should release about deaths, epidemics, and emerging diseases. When releasing the guidelines, the Association of Health Care Journalists summarized the crux of the issue:
Nothing deepens anxiety and erodes trust more than the perception that government officials are hiding information from the public. Responses can range from unnecessary anxiety to denial, instead of informed, appropriate actions. In a public health crisis, officials need to balance the requirement to protect the confidentiality of individuals' health information against the need to keep the public informed and engaged.
Why would officials ever opt to "hide" health information from the public? As a piece in today's Los Angeles Times explains, health officials sometimes withhold frightening information in order to avoid mass panic. However, a lack of detailed information from reliable sources during a health scare can fuel fear and leave the public feeling vulnerable. The article cites an example:
Earlier this year, officials in Arkansas hid behind privacy laws when the flu claimed its first death. According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a spokesman for the state health department said that "he couldn't reveal the county where the flu victim lived, what flu strain was responsible, whether the victim had been vaccinated for the particular strain contracted — or inoculated for flu at all." ... How is the public supposed to be reassured by this? Residents of Arkansas were left to wonder whether the flu victim lived near them, whether this was some new and virulent strain, and even whether the flu vaccine was working.
As the article points out, the public is responsible enough to deal with the truth, and their personal health decisions - such as whether or not to be vaccinated - can depend on it. Journalists are also capable of effectively broadcasting valuable health information - given that they get the facts from officials and remain respectful while reporting on individual cases (inaccurate, exaggerated, or overly invasive reporting can do more harm than good). Hopefully, the new guidelines will provide a useful framework for ethical and reliable health journalism.
Via Common Health