Canadian Environmental Health Atlas

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Media Coverage

Media Coverage

Media Coverage 
Although Cryptococcus gattii captured the interest of health researchers during the outbreak on Vancouver Island in 2001, the emergence of the pathogen was not well covered by media outlets.1 To explore the lack of media coverage, Anne-Marie Nicol and her colleagues (2008) compared epidemiological data with media reports for two emerging pathogens in BC: West Nile virus (WNv) and C. gattii (Figure 1).1 The researchers assessed the coverage for each pathogen by reviewing the content of six newspapers from local, regional, and national sources that were published between August 2001 and June 2006.

During the study period, C. gattii was responsible for 157 cases of serious illness and 5 deaths, while WNv caused no illness and no deaths. Despite the lack of morbidity and mortality for WNv, almost 6 times as many articles were written about the virus, a relationship illustrated by a cartoonist’s comment on the lack of publicity for C. gattii compared with WNv and SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that made news in 2003 (Figure 2). 

Reasons for Lack of Media Reports
A number of factors probably contributed to the lack of media coverage for C. gattii after the Vancouver Island outbreak, including: 

  • Challenges faced by investigators
     attempting to identify the illness
     and describe the infectious agent.
  • Scientific uncertainty, especially
     regarding the emergence of the
     pathogen.
  • The absence of any controversy
     related to C. gattii.
  • The absence of risk mitigation
     strategies and policies to publicize.  

One striking finding from the study was the lack of C. gattii coverage in the Nanaimo Daily News, the newspaper based closest to the outbreak. This newspaper published roughly 8 times as many articles about WNv as about C. gattii, despite the presence of the infectious agent in the region.

The researchers suggest that concentrated media ownership may play a part in the shaping of coverage. Today’s centralized production of media content means that fewer resources are available for regional news reports and that national and global stories often take precedence. As well, at the local media level there may be a desire to reassure citizens and reduce impacts on business and tourism by downplaying regional health risks.

Risk Communication
Whatever the reasons for the lack of coverage, media reporting of health issues plays a role in how both health professionals and members of the public perceive risk. The context, timing, and extent of coverage can influence policy and perceptions about the significance of a health issue. The research by Nicol shows that press coverage of C. gattii between August 2001 and June 2006 did not reflect the number of cases or the risk to local residents.1 

Effective risk communication requires that accurate, objective, consistent, clear, and complete information be provided to health practitioners and the public as soon as possible after a risk is identified.2 While media outlets have the ability to alert a wide audience to local environmental health risks, they cannot do so until they receive detailed information about the risks from public health officials.

  • 1. a. b. c. Nicol AM, Hurrell C, McDowall W, et al. Communicating the risks of a new, emerging pathogen: the case of Cryptococcus gattii. Risk Anal. 2008;28(2):373-86.
  • 2. Covello VT. Risk communication. In Environmental Health: From Global to Local. Editor: H. Frumkin. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2005. p. 988-1009.