Assessing Newspaper Preparedness for Public Health Emergencies

Article excerpt

This study examines newspapers' preparedness for public health emergencies and seeks to explain why some newspapers are better prepared than others. Findings from a regional survey of newspaper managers showed that few newspapers have crisis plans, and few have sufficiently trained or specialized staff for public health coverage. A model predicting level of preparedness received mixed support. As expected, organizational preparedness and professional orientation had significant effects on level of staff preparedness, but environmental factors such as level of toxins in the community and the degree of pluralism in the community's power structure failed to predict.

Journalists are critical players in communicating information about health risk to the public. In the event of a public health emergency, there is an unusually high need for information, and the mass media are generally best able to meet this need.1 Most adults in the United States, for example, first learned of the September 11, 2001, attacks via the mass media.2 The anthrax outbreak in fall 2001, the emergence of SARS in 2003, and health risks from Hurricane Katrina were all covered prominently in news outlets around the world.3 However, news reports of bioterrorism and emerging infectious diseases have been faulted for inaccurate, incomplete, and sensational coverage that may contribute to public misunderstanding of risks,4 public panic, and even loss of life.5

Research suggests media organizations are unprepared to cover these kinds of events in part because their journalists lack sufficient expertise in science and medicine.6 In the last few years, newsroom budgets for training have been slashed, and with resources stretched thin, time off for training is a luxury few newsrooms can afford.7

Media organizations have also done little planning for community health crises. In a 2004 survey, the Media security and Reliability Council found that 15% of radio and 47% of television outlets had disaster recovery plans in place, and a much smaller percentage had rehearsed plans.8 No one appears to have examined newspapers' preparedness. This study examines the level of preparedness of newspapers for public health emergencies and seeks to explain why some newspapers are better prepared than others. A model predicting preparedness is assessed. The model follows the logic of hierarchical models of influences on media decision making,9 as well as the community power structure framework, which suggests decisions by news organizations reflect the nature of power relationships in their communities.

Literature Review

The mass media are highly relied upon during community crises because top community decision makers are likely to target mass media with their messages, and because media organizations have substantial resources for gathering and disseminating information quickly and widely.10 Audiences rely most heavily on television during community crises,11 but as perceived threat increases, dependency on newspapers increases as well.12 Need for deeper understanding about social consequences of a community problem drives individuals to newspapers,13 and the greater the dependency on newspapers, the greater the change in attitude and behavior.14

The way power is structured in a community is a key determinant of how aggressive the media are in exposing community problems and searching for solutions. In small, homogeneous communities, newspapers are typically part of the tightly knit power structure, which they tend to support. In large, complex communities, in which there are many powers with conflicting views, newspaper content reflects disparate perspectives.15 Research has shown that news organizations in small, less pluralistic communities are less likely to cover public health risks indepth, while newspapers in large pluralistic communities are more likely to produce investigative stories that challenge local institutions about health risks. …