24 January, 2013

Some Thoughts on H5N1 Moratorium Lift

Results of unscientific survey of mainstream H5N1 moratorium-lift stories near the top of Google News:

Number of stories: 21

Stories in which top quote has a direct interest in continuing H5N1 transmissibility enhancement: 19 (nearly all Kawaoka or Fouchier)

Stories in which top quote is critical of the research: 1

Number of quoted pro-transmissibility enhancement sources: 42

Number of critical or skeptical quoted sources: 12

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Notes from an email ramble:

Reporters were told at 1pm yesterday about the big announcement, with embargo lift scheduled for 1pm today and a press conference at 10am.

The dynamics of this profession being what they are, this meant that daily journalists had part of an afternoon to report and several hours to write. In a situation like this, you either publish within a couple hours of embargo, or not at all. Obviously that’s not the case for publications hooked to weekly or longer news cycles, but the first wave of coverage, and arguably the most important from a public relations perspective, will come from the dailies.

Typically embargoed stories go out to reporters at least four or five days ahead of time. Even last-minute stories go out a couple days ahead. There was absolutely no reason not to inform reporters late last week. Arguably reporters (including myself) should be following the issue so closely that more time isn’t needed, and certainly some articles reflect that expertise, but most daily reporters in this situation are going to be generalists without a deep understanding of the material, who by default will give their imprimatur to whatever’s said at the press conference.

Looking at the  stories out now, there’s clearly a lot of that. At best, the NIH, journals and virologists handled the situation badly. At worst, they manipulated it cynically. As Kawaoka said during the press conference, “We need the media’s help.” That might be true — I’m not in a position to quantitatively judge disputes over the necessity of their methodologies or value of their transmissibility insights — but however much they need our help, they certainly don’t have my trust.