By: Tony Case
Top federal health official says media
must not overplay isolated occurrences
and underreport major crises sp.
THE MEDIA GIVE too much attention to health matters with tabloid appeal, such as the so-called “flesh-eating bacteria” that received reams of coverage earlier this year, while often underreporting major crises and triumphs, a top federal health official says.
Isolated occurrences that pose little threat may make great headlines, but they “tend to distract the public from the real health issues that are in need of attention,” David Satcher, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told Society of Professional Journalists convention attendees.
“There are some stories that really need to be told. They’re not high-tech, for the most part. They’re not exotic. But they make a difference in the lives of people.”
Satcher mentioned as one example successful immunization programs, which have eliminated small pox and nearly eradicated polio. The CDC predicts polio will be wiped out by the year 2000, saving from $250 million to $300 million a year in vaccinations in this country.
Also newsworthy is the dramatic decrease in deaths due to stroke and heart disease because people have made lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and increasing physical activity, he said. The CDC reports a 50% to 60% decrease in stroke-related deaths here since 1972.
When news organizations do cover the issues of the day, they tend to stop short of telling the whole story, Satcher maintained.
For example, most people are aware that teen-agers are continuing to take up smoking, despite the surgeon general’s warnings. But they might be surprised to learn how easily young people can purchase cigarettes from corner markets and vending machines.
It’s not news that many teens are sexually active ? by the 12th grade, an estimated 70% to 75% of U.S. youths are having sex, and every year 3 million cases of sexually transmitted diseases are reported among youths. However, the CDC has found that young people who receive sex education early on are less likely to be sexually active early and much less likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior, Satcher reported.
Given these statistics, “the opposition to sex education in this country is astounding,” he said, noting that less than 25% of schools allow it.
And perhaps the biggest public health story of all is America’s fascination with guns and glamorization of violence, the official told SPJ members.
“Today, homicide is a much greater problem in this country than infectious diseases, and there’s no way the CDC can ignore the fact that it is a leading cause of loss of life in this country,” he said.
But the political polar extremes deny violent deaths are a public health concern, Satcher contended. The argument from the right is that these deaths result from inadequacies in the criminal justice system; meanwhile, the left alleges they stem from social problems.
Satcher said the CDC doesn’t deny either assertion ? “it just says it is preventable.”
To ensure newspeople get correct, up-to-date health data, and to control the dissemination of information, the CDC has established a press relations office.
In recent news reports about an outbreak of a virulent form of Group A streptococcus in the United States and Britain, an unnamed CDC representative was quoted as saying no American was safe from contracting the mysterious bacteria that causes rapid deterioration of skin tissue.
Satcher lamented, “We haven’t been able to find out who said that yet.”
? ( There are some stories that really need to be told. They’re not high-tech, for the most part. They’re not exotic. But they make a difference in the lives of people.” )[Caption]
?(-David Satcher, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) [Photo]