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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Flu coverage strikes delicate balance

By Mark Platte

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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One of the more vexing editorial decisions we have had to make in the past few weeks has centered on how to handle stories about the emergence and spread of swine flu throughout the world.

Cover the story too extensively with monstrous headlines and you're liable to incite panic. Don't cover it well enough and stand accused of not educating the public about a legitimate health crisis.

Like many news organizations, our initial coverage was minuscule with a six-paragraph wire story on Page A10 on April 24 beneath the headline "7 infected with new strain of swine flu." The following day, we had a more extensive Associated Press story on Page A3 with a picture and headline "Deadly swine flu spreads in Mexico." By April 26, the story hit the top two columns of the front page. "Global epidemic of swine flu feared," the headline read.

The story was placed above the fold and in lead position on April 27 ("U.S. on alert as swine flu spreads") because the federal government declared a public health emergency and the strain had spread to the U.S., Canada, Spain and Mexico. Online, we moved to a breaking news special that captured the day's developments.

When the state of Hawai'i started preparing for an outbreak, with an estimated 300,000 doses of medication available, we made the news more prominent in print on April 28, placing two stories, a photo and a graphic on the majority of the front page. We ran two more stories the next day, April 29, leading with the stabilization of cases in Mexico and underneath it, the revelation that the first Hawai'i residents were being tested for swine flu. The story stayed on Page One the next two days, as President Obama spoke about the growing number of cases in the U.S. and schools were closed.

But on May 2 and May 3, the story did not contain significant enough developments and was played inside the paper. When officials said the new virus was not as lethal as they first feared, we ran that story on the bottom of the front page on May 4 but the news gained traction when Hawai'i state officials identified three probable cases. For the next six days, May 5 to 10, local stories about H1N1 dominated the cover of The Advertiser as the number of confirmed cases rose to six, with a UH-Manoa dorm student contracting the flu.

This past week, four more cases emerged, with two -a teacher and student discovered at 'Anuenue School. We had the story set up as a Page One centerpiece but it appeared overplayed in that position so we changed our minds and placed it at the bottom of the page. By the end of the week, we had 21 confirmed cases.

We spoke often about our online presence and alternated between news specials that dominated the top of the site and then smaller breaking news headlines at other times. Always, we tried to strike a balance between informing readers and making sure we weren't frightening people unnecessarily. We did run an online poll asking readers who first should receive flu dosages if the supply was limited. In hindsight, we probably could have changed the wording of that poll.

In the past few weeks, we have conducted an online video chat with Dr. Alan Tice, John A. Burns School of Medicine professor and infectious diseases expert, and a "Hot Seat" interview with state health director Dr. Chiyome Fukino and state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park. These interviews were effective in dispensing the best information available about the disease.

Going forward, we will keep debating the play of swine flu and try to strike a balance about what readers need to know without without creating hysteria.