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Telling it like it is: US health reporting guidelines reveal Australian media quirks

A new set of guidelines produced in the United States for reporting deaths, epidemics and emerging diseases has relevance for Australian media. It shows the differences in the way news organisations in…

Guidelines for reporting deaths, epidemics and emerging diseases balance the needs of the media with the constraints facing public health officials. DFID - UK Department for International Development

A new set of guidelines produced in the United States for reporting deaths, epidemics and emerging diseases has relevance for Australian media. It shows the differences in the way news organisations in the two countries approach coverage of serious health issues as well as the importance of sensible health reporting.

Improving public access to reliable information about health crises has obvious benefits: poor reporting can dramatically change public behaviour, cause anxiety and lead to inappropriate, expensive and sometimes detrimental interventions.

Good quality news stories can improve public understanding, allay fears and inform good use of health resources.

Health authorities are pivotal in providing reliable information at the right time, especially during emergencies or potential crises.

Internationally, there are any number of guidelines for health news reporting developed usually by health or media authorities and adopted voluntarily by journalist associations. Most of these associations acknowledge responsibility in creating public opinion, while juggling the competing needs of respecting state institutions and employer loyalty, and protecting journalistic integrity.

The new framework

The US Guidelines released last month are more detailed than anything described by the Press Council of Australia. They are sensibly set out, with separate sections for journalists and health officials, whose outlooks are often, by necessity, opposed.

The authors say the collaborative guidelines were prompted by a “wide variation in information” released by different officials during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

They note the “disparate approaches” of information released by state and county health officials became the subject of media attention during the crisis, “distracting from health messages” and inadvertently “undermining public trust”.

The guidelines recognise a need to balance the public’s desire to know – and the media’s role in making this happen – with legitimate requirements public health officials may have in restricting detailed information in the name of privacy.

The authors note “nothing deepens anxiety and erodes trust more than the perception that government officials are hiding information from the public”, observing “in media parlance, the cover up can become a bigger story than the actual event”.

With this in mind, the section aimed at health officials sets out information media organisations will want to know in reporting a typical health story – the “who, what, why, where, when and how” of an event.

Bureaucrats are told that “openness is paramount” and that they should “strive to release as much information as possible, within the limits of the law.”

Information should be withheld “only when there is a clearly justified reason” to do so, the guidelines say, and the reason should be explained in detail.

This is the main departure from what happens in Australia.

Cultural differences

In practice, Australian public sector spokespeople across the board rarely explain a refusal to provide information with anything more detailed than “it would breach privacy concerns” or it’s “commercial in confidence” or “before the courts”.

Interestingly, these explanations are usually accepted by mainstream Australian media. By way of contrast, the US guidelines go so far as to say that if advice is being withheld on “advice by local counsel” – that is on advice from a lawyer or barrister – then that advice should be explained.

The recommendations for reporters in the US guidelines emphasise journalists' responsibility to maintain accuracy and remain fair while acting as a conduit for information from health officials in times of crisis.

One of the main concerns of the guidelines is the way in which information imparted by health officials – and transmitted by journalists – is used to reveal, or to protect, the identity of individuals involved in such health-related events as epidemics.

These concerns are irrelevant, of course, if an individual or their family consents to be identified. But the identification is another area that appears to depart dramatically from Australian practice.

In the past 20 years, Australian laws have increasingly strengthened the restrictions on media identification of people under the age of 18, but the US guidelines appear to go in the opposite direction, saying journalists are likely to “choose to identify an individual when the person’s identity has already become widely known, as often happens when a child is involved… .”.

These small departures aside, these US guidelines have something to offer Australian journalists and officials – especially those working in health.

The guidelines suggest health officials can best serve the public by providing as much information as possible and that journalists need to file complete and accurate stories, while respecting privacy concerns.

And that’s something that translates in its entirety into the Australian context.