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How-to guide for flu coverage

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Nieman Foundation launches online guide to covering pandemic flu

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard launched a comprehensive online guide to covering pandemic flu. Written by and for journalists, the Nieman Foundation’s Guide to Covering Pandemic Flu 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 this past spring. 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.

In explaining the importance of the guide, the Nieman Foundation’s special projects manager and site editor Stefanie Friedhoff 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.”

Over time the Nieman guide will be updated and expanded as an online aid for journalists reporting on other health crises.

Guide to Covering Pandemic Flu
An Introduction to Influenza provides an overview of the disease, from seasonal to pandemic influenza, including definitions on what causes a pandemic, the derivation of the name, and responses to some common misconceptions about the flu.

The Science gives essential information about the basic biological mechanisms that drive both seasonal and pandemic flu; explains why there are different types of influenza, how the virus mutates efficiently into new strains, how it crosses the species barrier, what journalists need to know about swine flu and avian flu, and important details about the science behind vaccines, antiviral drugs, and masks and respirators.

Pandemic Preparedness is an outline of the major arguments driving preparedness efforts and gives an overview of the challenges of preparing for and responding to a pandemic as addressed on various levels: global, federal and state governmental, community, individual, business, and in the sciences. It also provides a basic understanding of medical and nonmedical interventions.

Pandemic Reporting gives stories of struggles, observations, insights, tips, and story ideas from veteran flu reporters including Helen Branswell from The Canadian Press; Maryn McKenna, an independent journalist; Maggie Fox from Reuters; Margie Mason from The Associated Press, and Alan Sipress from The Washington Post.

Crisis Communication provides a rare view into the inner world of public health message-making, including frank accounts by communication specialists from the World Health Organization and the CDC; tips from an epidemiologist on how journalists can deal with all the uncertainties in this story; insights into how people may react in a severe pandemic and how officials plan to manage panic; and some observations by a leading risk consultant on how emotions shape what people think and do about risks, and what journalists and officials are getting wrong about the pandemic.

A History of Pandemics offers a quick overview of past pandemics that shape current discussions, including the Spanish Flu in 1918-19 and the swine flu scare in 1976.

Glossary lists major terms used by officials and scientists, and their definitions.

Resources & Links is a list that will help journalists sort through some of the major Web sites and online resources that provide information on various aspects of the flu story.