Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 28, 2009

A quick rewind to risk communication

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on April 28, 2009

In today’s Washington Post, way back in the Style section, Howard Kurtz, who regularly does media criticism, offered an insightful take on how the media has responded to the swine flu situation.

But Kurtz  missed one crucial insight.  Here are the first four paragraphs of his review, “The story spread rapidly in the news vacuum of Sunday afternoon, when federal officials declared a health emergency, and by yesterday the coverage of a swine flu outbreak had reached fever pitch.”

“With front-page headlines, constant cable-news updates and top-story status on the evening newscasts, the outbreak — with at least 40 confirmed cases in the United States — was inescapable. But the sheer volume of media attention suggested a full-blown crisis.”

“This is one of the hazards of 24-hour Internet-media-television,” said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. “It’s obviously a big story and you want to give it attention. I do think we have to be careful not to overstate it and not make people scared to death.”

“Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said from Mexico City that some reporting, “if taken the wrong way, can cause undue excitement. But it can also calm or allay people’s fears. You have to make sure what you’re saying is absolutely credible and not sensational. I’m trying to provide that context.”

Left out is what was happening before the Sunday afternoon news vacuum was breached. 

Beginning with the Saturday morning news cycle in Asia and Europe, the swine flu story was going viral faster than the disease itself. 

The famously net-savvy Obama team saw the same emergence.  Maybe it was even in the Saturday PDB.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a twenty-something net-head from over in the EOB — or maybe from his morning bike ride or evening bar-stool — who sent the first BlackBerry ping.

By Sunday morning it was becoming clear that panic was taking off, and with it any ability to meaningfully shape public understanding.

The White House had a few hours to act — and thereby influence — the Monday morning news cycle or wait and hope the worst did not happen.   They decided to act. 

The White House had several action options. They could have punted to a DHS press briefing or to CDC in Atlanta.  They might have been a bit more laid back.  They might have used their own YouTube  capability and other new media  resources. Instead, right after church on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, they called the mainstream media to the White House.

They started with an especially authoritative John Brennan setting out the strategic picture.  The briefers spent considerable time answering questions and setting a tone of engaged, proactive concern and action. 

They never said so, but the White House was depending on those ancient — now nearly lost — journalistic principles of “being careful not to overstate it” and “credibility not sensationalism” and “providing context.”

Fortunately for all of us — so far — they got what they wanted and we needed.  If the White House had not acted when they did and how they did, the fever pitch on Monday morning or this morning would almost certainly have been deadly hot.

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Comment by Arnold

April 28, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

Kurtz might be a little too far into the media’s navel (is that even an appropriate way to twist navel-gazing?).

Mexico was already taking social distancing actions on Friday–at least it was Friday when it started hitting U.S. news outlets: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30386163/ (and this blog was all over the story on Friday as well).

The U.S. media–which Kurtz is focused on–didn’t much care because there weren’t any U.S. cases–or very few suspected ones as of Friday. But if the Mexican government was already at this level on Friday, it wasn’t an “emerging” story on Sunday: “April 24: Mexico’s Minister of Health confirms 20 deaths from swine flu, but 40 other fatalities were being probed and at least 943 nationwide were sick from the suspected flu. Mexico City shuts down schools, museums, libraries, and state-run theaters across the capital.” (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hyjCtfZksKLPEHXnZeWH-c3dIUmwD97RPT800)

Hopefully this hit the attention of relevant officials far before this weekend. I’ve heard from medical community-connected colleagues that whispers/bulletins have been flying for at least over a week in that community on the Mexican cases.

While I’m not sure at what point it should be included into the PDB, I hope some staffer sent that blackberry ping from his perch at The Gibson early in the week…

All this aside, I do agree that the White House acted appropriately in terms of messaging at the right time. What is more difficult to ascertain is whether the right people and departments were spinning up well before the U.S. media woke up to the story this weekend.

For a world concerned the last few years about a pandemic flu outbreak, why it took until Friday to gain even a whisper of attention in U.S. news outlets would be a more interesting topic of analysis by Kurtz than yet another piece regarding the need to fill a 24 hour news cycle with something exciting. It is not as if the media has been ignoring our neighbor to the south the past few months due to the drug cartel issue.

Comment by Peter J. Brown

April 28, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

Backing up a bit to include the news events of late Friday, April 24. First, the WHO released this (http://www.who.int/csr/don/2009_04_24/)

“24 April 2009 — The United States Government has reported seven confirmed human cases of Swine Influenza A/H1N1 in the USA (five in California and two in Texas) and nine suspect cases. All seven confirmed cases had mild Influenza-Like Illness (ILI), with only one requiring brief hospitalization. No deaths have been reported.

“The Government of Mexico has reported three separate events. In the Federal District of Mexico, surveillance began picking up cases of ILI starting 18 March. The number of cases has risen steadily through April and as of 23 April there are now more than 854 cases of pneumonia from the capital. Of those, 59 have died. In San Luis Potosi, in central Mexico, 24 cases of ILI, with three deaths, have been reported. And from Mexicali, near the border with the United States, four cases of ILI, with no deaths, have been reported…”

Also on Friday, John Barry from New Orleans, the gifted author of “The Great Influenza” about the 1918 flu pandemic, appeared briefly on CNN at 10PM. The full interview spread quickly over the Internet. Among other things, Barry explained to his CNN audience that with 1000 people or more now affected, there was nothing that the governments of the US or Mexico could do at that point to stop the spread of this disease. Barry would be among the first remind everyone that a vital statistic was missing — nobody could begin to estimate how many people in Mexico were actually sickened by this flu, and so scientists and health experts could not work the percentages. Barry reminded people that even this flu virus could attenuate during human to human transmission and that in 1918, survivors vastly outnumbered the deceased — indeed the vast majority of people affected around the world suffered only mild flu symptoms — despite the enormous death toll.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 29, 2009 @ 4:39 am

Three bits of information relevant to the discussion. During yesterday’s DHS press briefing John Brennan said, “The first instances of the influenza down in Mexico were at the end of last week. In terms of confirmation, it was like Thursday or Friday of last week. So the Mexican health authorities knew they had a health issue, and therefore they sent the samples to both the Canadian labs as well as to the CDC. And so the confirmation that it was swine flu was last week.”

This morning Dow Jones (of all sources) is reporting, “The first two known human cases of infection with the strain of swine flu that is suspected to have caused the death of up to 159 people in Mexico were in the U.S. in late March, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” (News Link:http://money.cnn.com/news/newsfeeds/articles/djf500/200904290457DOWJONESDJONLINE000334_FORTUNE5.htm)

Yesterday in his news briefing the Acting Director of the CDC said, “The earliest onset date for a case here (in the US) was March 28th.”

I do not perceive the veracity of these statements are necessarily in conflict. Bishop Berkeley’s bit about trees falling in the forest does, sometimes, offer a practical insight. The differences may, however, point to issues of information-flow, information-analysis, and risk recognition.

Pingback by Swine flu: strategic goals and operational plans | Homeland Security Watch

April 29, 2009 @ 6:40 am

[…] Some of the key concerns have been set out in comments made on this blog in recent days (especially see the comments to this prior post). Basically it comes down to “what did you know, and when did you know it.” But there […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2009 @ 10:33 am

My Phil hope you were not pulling an all-nighter? Make sure you identify the Brennan interview date because it was not “yesterdays” but day before. I know Howard Kurz from his days following OIG stories about HUD screwups and I was helping represent the then non-statutory IG at HUD. Howard–plese note–this is a huge story and just because the public health surveillance system did not generate press news when first detected does not mean that you should not follow this one closely! This could be and hopefully WILL NOT be a huge story but my guess is that the Witch Hunters will be witching on this before Memorial Day. The press and public cannot be decieved by Treasury slight of hand on this one. More important, the international press has already made up its mind about the competence of the US leadership and Mexican leadership as revealed by this event and now the political leadership is following. Hey track down one fact Howard and go from there. How many respiratory ventilators does the entirety of the US medical system have, how are they managed and stockpiled, and how can they be surged manufactured? Don’t know Howard but you should because this is basic knowledge now that WHO has stated “No Containment” only hope for “MITIGATION.” And of course the post and comments above reveal that it took a non-historian historian John Barry to reveal in his 10PM last Friday interview the same thing. Hope sales are skyrocketing on his book. I did read a recent academic piece on the impact of the 1918 flu on Austin Texas. Can’t really remember where or how I came across it. But it is all there, the denial, anger, acceptance, and I missed one of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s four horsemen of the Apocolypse but you get the point. And as for the Press put the first team on board on this one because you may very well need it! The blonde bimbos probably won’t cut it.

Pingback by On the seventh day we do not rest | Homeland Security Watch

May 1, 2009 @ 6:44 am

[…] As reported previously, the start of the H1N1 virus story can be traced back, at least, to late March.  But in terms of significant public and official attention, it was last Friday when the risk began to be recognized in a serious way. […]

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