Media Bias When Reporting Influenza-Related Deaths
- There are many reports of the deaths of children from influenza during every flu season.
- News stories about influenza-related deaths do not always provide background information on the patient’s medical history and events leading up to the death.
- It is important to understand any potential co-factors that may be related to a flu-related death prior to determining cause.
In cases where the child did get the flu shot, the fact that the vaccine proved to be ineffective is entirely dismissed. Often, news stories indiscriminately attribute the death to influenza while omitting important background information and events leading up to the death. Attributing death to influenza may not always be as straightforward as it appears.
First, journalists should be asking questions about the medical history. Did the child have any other health problems, such as asthma or another chronic disease? Was the child taking any prescription drugs? Could any other environmental or biological co-factors have contributed to the child’s death?
Equally important are questions regarding the events that occur after the child contracts the influenza. When and how many times did the child see a physician? Was the child under the care of more than one physician? Was the child prescribed any medications and what are the side effects of those medications? If prescribed more than one medication, could the drugs have interacted with each other or with a previously prescribed medication?
Numerous factors come into play when determining the cause-of-death, however, current news stories on influenza-related deaths are based on selective reporting and, therefore, often do not provide an accurate or thorough account of what happened. This type of careless journalism about influenza-related deaths communicates misleading information and promotes anxiety and fear.
Historically, the mission of journalists has been to straightforwardly and wit professionalism report news that contains accurate facts, fair balance and does not forward a narrative with a specific political, ideological or business agenda.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) mortality statistics only count “the underlying cause-of-death” which is defined as the condition that led the person to seek treatment.5
The CDC uses the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definition of “underlying cause-of-death”:
the disease or injury, which initiated the train of events leading directly to death, or the circumstances of the accident or violence, which produced the fatal injury. Underlying cause-of-death is selected from the conditions entered by the physician on the cause of death section of the death certificate. When more than one cause or condition is entered by the physician, the underlying cause is determined by the sequence of conditions on the certificate, provisions of the International Classification of Disease, and associated selection rules and modifications.5Any other medical complications or errors that occur before or after the patient seeks medical treatment are not included in published totals making it crucial to understand what is known and not known about each death.6