As we’ve noted before, pandemics are by nature a worldwide issue. But once they hit home, it’s no small challenge to track what’s happening in the rest of the world in ways that won’t confuse or distance an already-saturated audience.
David Baron is Health & Science Editor for PRI’s The World. He says that when H1N1 first emerged last spring, the need for a global perspective was clear: people wanted to know how and where the virus might spread, and how bad it would be. Now that the virus is widespread in the United States, attention has turned to domestic issues such as school closings, vaccine availability, and government preparedness at all levels.
The H1N1 pandemic remains a very important story for The World, which covers global events and how they affect the U.S. The question they face now is: “How do we keep it a World story?” David and his team are constantly seeking global angles that connect with the needs and interests of their American listeners.
Those of us who assume the inherent importance of global coverage might be surprised to learn of its complexities. Take this report by Gerry Hadden that aired a few weeks ago.
“H1N1 Flu Shot Ambivalence in Europe” by Gerry Hadden (transcript)
We saw a news item in which many Germans said that if they were offered a vaccine for H1N1, they would not get it. We wanted to know why Germans are so opposed, while Americans are so in favor. I assumed the story Gerry would get is that the average German is not that aware of how important the vaccine is, or that they don’t trust the German government. I assumed that doctors would be on board, but that wasn’t exactly the case. Even the German medical establishment was wary of the vaccine and was discouraging people from getting it unless they were in a high-risk group. The message from German doctors was much more negative than the message from doctors in the U.S.
I struggled with how to put this on the air in a way that wouldn’t confuse people and wouldn’t undermine the public health message here. But at the same time, I don’t want to censor anybody. If this is what German doctors are saying, of course we should let them say it on our program.
Ultimately, David chose to start the segment with an interview with an official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to remind American listeners of the U.S. government’s message, before “confusing” them with the contrasting view from Germany. He then followed Gerry Hadden’s piece with an interview with a British social scientist about different cultural attitudes to the H1N1 vaccine.
“Cultural Attitudes About Swine Flu Vaccine” by Marco Werman (transcript)
As David surveys the globe for more swine flu stories, he wants to avoid simply assembling “a collection of facts,” of just telling listeners what’s happening in different countries. Rather, he’s going for the “why.”
Why does one country react in one way, and another country react in a totally different way? That, in some ways, is the most interesting story.
And that’s what led to this World report last week about panic in the Ukraine stoked by a mixture of politics, media, and culture.
“Ukraine Takes Drastic Measures Against Swine Flu” by Brigid McCarthy (transcript)
We asked David for his advice to local public media stations when it comes to covering swine flu worldwide.
Honestly, what’s happening in the rest of the world is not what the majority of Americans care about most. But they will care if and when the virus mutates and becomes more dangerous or more lethal, or if it develops resistance to existing drugs or the vaccine.
Newsrooms across the United States should be keeping an eye overseas, tracking the progress of H1N1 and other viruses, in order to anticipate coverage needs at home. And, with so many waiting in the wings, David says, “We’ll all have to get used to covering these stories again and again.”
Note: The World has several podcasts to help you track their coverage. Much of their swine flu coverage makes it into The World Science Podcast.