Here's a must-read from Drs. Peter M. Sandman and Jody Lanard, the go-to experts on risk communication. Via their blog Risk=Hazard+Outrage: Zika Risk in U.S. States: Widespread or Limited? The White House Hijacks a Key CDC Message to Attack Republicans; Public Health Officials and Reporters Mostly Go Along. The introduction:
On May 27, 2016, Elizabeth Whitman of International Business Times emailed me to request a telephone interview with both me and my wife and colleague Jody Lanard about “how public health officials juggle the need to educate the public and convey a sense of urgency about the Zika virus without sending people into unnecessary panic.” We did the interview the same day.
But instead of focusing on education/urgency versus panic, we focused on our judgment that public health messaging about Zika risk in the continental U.S. had become much more alarmist starting around the beginning of April. That was when White House officials preempted one of the CDC’s key Zika messages: that domestic Zika outbreaks were very likely (but not guaranteed) to be small and local.
Instead of preparing Americans to take limited domestic Zika outbreaks in stride, we told Elizabeth, the White House started preparing Americans to expect epidemic-level domestic Zika outbreaks; to see even small limited domestic Zika outbreaks as widespread and catastrophic; and to blame them on Republicans for failing to pass Zika funding.
Elizabeth’s June 9 story made only a little use of our interview. She ignored our main point about the hijacked message. Instead, her main point was how hard it is for public health officials to communicate nuance to a frightened population. And she wrongly attributed to us the view that there was a “media frenzy” to cover Zika that made “crucial nuances disappear.”
We taped the interview. Since we didn’t have Elizabeth’s permission to record and publish her side of the conversation, a transcript of our side only is posted here, very slightly edited for clarity but not content. We have also added boldface headings, bracketed clarifications, links, and endnotes documenting a few of the many sources that led to our analysis.