Why the death of local newspapers is a disaster for outbreak surveillance: 4 things to know

Epidemiologists tasked with tracking infectious disease outbreaks rely heavily on information from local news sources, meaning they could be left with significant information gaps as local newspapers in large swaths of the U.S. continue to fold, according to a report from STAT

Here are four things to know.

1. Disease detectives examine data from many different sources to identify outbreaks, including local and state health agencies, and social media. Newspapers are not only helpful for identifying outbreaks, but also for predicting their trajectory, according to Maia Majumder, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and a computational epidemiology research fellow at HealthMap. HealthMap tracks global infectious disease activity online using nontraditional data sources.

2. Ms. Majumder cited Arkansas' 2016-17 mumps outbreak — which neared 3,000 cases — as an example of how local newspapers can help health officials track the progression of an outbreak. When attempting to determine why the outbreak was so large, Ms. Majumder and colleagues struggled to obtain important data. While the Arkansas Department of Public Health provided regular updates about the outbreak's numbers, it did not archive them. However, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette covered the outbreak in detail and access to the coverage was easy to obtain, providing valuable context on the outbreak's progression.

3. While newspapers aren't the only source of local news, communities that cannot support these entities are often also unable to support radio and television stations. Also, radio and television reports aren't as likely to be archived. While social media is helpful for tracking the spread of disease, it cannot provide a stand-in for newspapers due to the widespread dissemination of falsehoods — either by accident or design — across social media platforms.

4. Ms. Majumder noted another troubling trend regarding the decline of local newspapers —the majority of communities without access to a daily newspaper are in pockets of the country where there is a growing sentiment of being left behind.

"What that means is they lose access to news, which is very, very vital for knowing what's going on in your town," Ms. Majumder told STAT. "But also from the public health surveillance point of view, we're losing access to knowing what they need."

To read the full report from STAT, click here.

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