Journalists, Officials Offer Guidelines For Urgent Health News

Flashback: It's the winter of swine flu, and public health officials have just announced that there have been a couple of cases in schoolchildren in our town. Our elementary school principal is standing in the driveway during drop-off, and I have to restrain myself from grabbing him by both lapels and demanding, "Is it here? Is it? Which grades?"

Public health emergencies, from E. coli outbreaks to flu, make information beggars of all of us, from journalists to concerned citizens. And official decisions about which information to release and which to hold back can be maddening to a public hungry for confirmed knowledge.

So it was very welcome news that I read in an op-ed piece in today's Los Angeles Times: the Association of Health Care Journalists has worked up a set of guidelines in collaboration with public officials, calling for responsible handling of information but also for increased transparency wherever possible. Felice J. Freyer and Charles Ornstein write:

Our organization of healthcare journalists wanted to come up with a solution that would both keep the public informed and respect patient privacy. So we teamed up with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the National Assn. of County and City Health Officials to develop some recommendations. To their credit, health officials were eager to work with us and professed a commitment to openness.

The end result was a set of voluntary guidelines affirming that health officials should withhold information only where there is a clearly justified reason to do so.

The guidance also calls on journalists to do their part: Learn the broader context of an incident, seek an explanation when public health officials say they cannot answer all the questions, and respect individuals' desire for privacy. We make no excuses for journalists who report rumor rather than fact, crash funerals where they are not wanted or continue to call grieving relatives who have said they don't wish to talk.

There will be another public health emergency — a different type of flu, perhaps, or an illness no one even knows about today. But next time, with this new guidance in hand, health officials across the country will be better equipped to balance privacy concerns with the public's need to know what is happening in their communities.

I do think these guidelines will come in handy next time there's an information drought on an urgent topic, and I hope they spread widely among officials who control the information spigots . The full guidelines are here, and I particularly appreciate the part about openness as an overarching principle:

Openness is paramount. It is an essential component of protecting the public and communicating effectively. Public health officials should strive to release as much information as possible, within the limits of the law.
Withhold information only when there is a clearly justified reason to keep it confidential. Explain the rationale for any decision to withhold information.
If the reason for withholding is advice from local counsel, explain the basis for the advice to the extent possible. If state, local or federal law is the reason, provide the citation of the law in question.

This program aired on August 1, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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