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The spread of the flu from a journalist’s perspective

A week ago, we weren’t talking about the flu. Friday morning, it will be sprawled across our front page and was already covered in our York City Limits blog. The flu epidemic it seems, cropped up almost literally overnight. Or rather, the media firestorm of flu coverage cropped up overnight.

I was working an overnight reporting shift when I saw reports coming across various media outlets about the start of a high intensity flu season. The State Department of Health had recently released its stats for December. The department listed “widespread” flu activity, with more than 220 confirmed cases in York County and four deaths statewide.

Since then, we’ve jumped on the story. Over the course of the last week, we’ve run coverage from the Associated Press and our partners at Digital First Media on the web and in our paper, as Night News and Digital Media journalist Mike Spiro and reporter Stephanie Reighart worked on localizing the outbreak.

As always, we reached out to official sources for our coverage, but we also solicited feedback on our Facebook page. The post generated 35 comments, many of which were about more than the just the flu. In quick thoughts of a couple of paragraphs or less, people posted about first-time pregnancies, worrying about the best ways to protect an unborn child, parenting a sick kid and refusing the flu shot because of a distrust of official or governmental reports, a sentiment that has pervaded stories and commentary at our paper this year. The comments offered  a way of humanizing the event, taking it beyond the economic or medical impact, as well as a way of showing how one big event ultimately ties into many smaller stories.

The comments that resonated most with me simply said: “Never had it. Never got the shot.” I’m one of those. I didn’t get the flu shot. I’m sitting at my desk pumping out information on the spread of the virus and crowded emergency rooms, but the thought of getting vaccinated never crossed my mind. I failed to apply the common sense recommended by many the officials I interviewed because I often become ensconced in my role as an observer. I remove myself from the situation.

I’m a new journalist, just out of college. I started working with YDR this summer, and this is the first national news story I’ve helped to break and then watched unfold. What I thought would see maybe a day of coverage and fade from the paper is now verging on an epidemic. And as our newsroom harnessed resources to put out reliable, accurate and timely information, and worried about deadlines, inch counts and photos, 18 others in the state, including one in York County, died.

Reporting on something like the flu is a reminder of the way we, as journalists, work in a kind of limbo. We’re covering things that also affect ourselves, and as we report facts, statements, officials and numbers, we’re also talking about people’s lives. And yet, in order to do our job, it’s often becomes necessary, at least momentarily, to forget all that.