Citizen Journalism, Public Health Stories and Ooze News

Written by Ryan Thornburg December 17, 2009 11:14 am EST

Public health issues often only make the news when some dramatic event provides a clear narrative that journalists can use to craft a compelling story. I was in the middle of one of those stories this week when the Miami-Dade County Health Department told guests at the downtown Epic Hotel not to use the water there because it was the suspected source of Legionnaires’ Disease. After more than a week of lost revenue, the hotel’s now been cleared as the source of the deadly bacteria — but not before the incident provided some good lessons about the roles of government, professional reporters and citizen journalists in public health stories that tend to be much more important over the long term than during an initial safety scare.

Amateur journalists with blogs may help fill gaps in information about some news stories, but my experience being in the middle of this public health story is leading me to further believe that there is just no way a crowd of self-motivated but distracted citizens will replace a few well-paid and focused professionals when it comes to holding powerful people accountable. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and newspaper editor Eugene Roberts said, many important stories don’t break, they ooze. And only professionals have the economic incentive to provide the kind of sustained expertise — and now the kind of reader-source organization and leadership — that’s needed to cover the stories that ooze rather than break.

In the story about Miami’s Legionnaires’ outbreak, there’s a role for all of the key players in the flow of information in a free-market democracy — professional journalists, the government, private business, business clients and the general public. The way that each of these key players acted as news broke provides some focused insight about the roles — sometimes interchangeable, sometimes unique –  these institutions play in an increasingly convoluted media world.

I found out about the story for two reasons — first, a professional journalist broke it and then a colleague of mine sent it to me. As a guest of the hotel two days before it was evacuated, this story couldn’t have been more relevant to me. But I relied first on an impersonal, professional reporter and then on a personal contact to get the news to me.

Jose Pagliery wrote the first story about the outbreak for The Miami Herald. He was the only reporter on duty last Saturday, when he got word that another reporter for the paper had been tipped off to the story from sources at the hotel, Pagliery said. With that information, he was able to call the county health department and get enough information to write up a quick story. Without that reporter’s ear to the ground and without a professional journalist to call the health department, Pagliery said he suspects the story would have been come out much later, if ever.

I had been in Miami for a meeting with the Knight Foundation. Another person who was there just happened to hear the tail end of a television story about the outbreak while she was on a trip to Grenada later that same weekend. Her curiosity piqued, she searched the Web for keywords she had heard in the TV report and discovered the CBS4 story that confirmed that both she, I and perhaps a dozen other people at our meeting had been staying at the hotel that was the suspected source of a deadly disease. She immediately sent us all an e-mail with a link to the article. That’s the kind of concierge information service that probably can’t scale to a large media organization, but that would have incredible value to readers if mass customization of news story selection ever comes about. For those of us who already have organic online social networks, we get the concierge service for no cost other than being engaged with people who are curious and alert about the world around them.

When I found out about the story, my old reporting instincts went in to full gear. Mostly, I wanted to know why the hotel had told me and other guests two days before the evacuation not to drink the water without alerting us to any potential health risk. Two of the most fundamental questions for reporters whose job is to hold powerful people accountable are “Who knew about this? And when did they know it?” I wondered if the hotel had known about the risk much earlier than it had disclosed to its guests — a decision that might have prioritized their money over my health.

These details were missing from the stories in The Miami Herald and on the CBS4 Web site. So on Sunday I quickly e-mailed the reporters as well as the public relations department at Kimpton Hotels, the parent company of the Epic Hotel. Amid the hustle to church, a visit from my mother-in-law, plans to host a party at our house that night, and caring for our two young kids I posted a call out to other potential guests on Twitter and made plans to write a blog post about the additional information.

That was Sunday. Today is Thursday. I’m just now getting around to writing the post.

This story directly affected me. I was trained as a journalist, worked as a journalist and now I teach journalism. And a four-day turnaround time is the best I could do? Yes. Because I had other things to do that only I could do. In the short run, the opportunity cost for me of not grading finals, not attending a faculty meeting, and not writing my book was greater than me not reporting on this story. Over the last few days I did talk to a representative of the hotel, an epidemiologist from the health department, a TV news producer, a newspaper reporter and several other guests at the hotel. I wanted to share what information I had with them, but what I really wanted is for them to do the hard work of reporting and delivering the news so I could get back to my day job.

If I had not been personally invested in the answers, would I — as a mere “citizen” — have bothered to contact all these people? I can tell you I’ve not bothered to pursue any of Miami’s previous 19 cases of Legionnaires’ it reported in 2009 — even though, as I later found out, the city saw more than twice the number of cases than in any of the previous four years, according to the Miami-Dade County Health Department Monthly Disease Report. And I’ve not been able to find a single other one of my fellow 400 hotel guests who has been blogging or Tweeting about the story.

Two Epic Hotel guests from Denmark did contact a personal injury law firm to determine whether they might have legal action in the case. Driven by the private interests of the two men, the firm would have no doubt become a great source of expert reporting on the issue. But unless the case had gone to trial, much of the most important information would never have become part of the public debate about whether powerful people made the right decisions to protect lives.

So, with the hotel cleared as the source of the bacteria and with no symptoms of the pneumonia that can turn Legionnaires’ fatal, my attention to this story is just about gone. Even if the county hadn’t given the hotel a clean bill of health yesterday, my reporting still probably would have been done. And it would have left many important questions that I would not attempt to answer. My personal interest in reporting the story might have eventually added elements to the news as it broke. But with that interest now almost totally gone, it will be up to someone else to cover what may be a more important story — the one that oozes.

The public health story that still affects anyone visiting or living in Miami is the dramatic increase in the number of Legionnaires’ cases there this year. If I were a resident or frequent visitor I’d be even more terrified that the source can’t be traced back to a single luxury hotel. I might still prefer my chances with the county’s water to my chances with the county’s roads and highways, but something is causing a jump in a deadly bacteria and the cause might be preventable. In an ideal world with limitless resources, someone would test chlorine levels in water throughout the county, compare them to the levels found at the Epic Hotel and deliver those findings to the county’s residents. In an ideal world, someone would follow up on the Herald’s reporting that people in the health department have concerns about “inefficient international communication channels” that prevented it from searching the hotel earlier. That reporting, too, would make its way to anyone drinking county water.

And even though the hotel was cleared, I’d still like to know why the hotel wasn’t more upfront with its guests about potential health risks in the water. And whether or not any other hotels at which I might be staying are using powerful filters that make the water yummy but may leave it susceptible to deadly bacteria.

I am not going to do that reporting. I doubt a volunteer cadre of Miami residents or business travelers will take it upon themselves either. I don’t trust the health department or the Kimpton Hotel company to do it, because their interests conflict with my own. Who is going to do it? For public health stories and other news that oozes, I want to hire professionals whose job it is to not amuse me but to give me the information I need to make my own decisions about how to best protect myself, my family and my friends from anyone or anything who would do us harm. Just tell me where to send my check so I can get back to my daily life.

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