My thanks to Lisa Schnirring of CIDRAP for bringing us a report from the recent US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tabletop exercise. This event brought together representatives from governmental agencies, health institutions, traditional news outlets, and internet forums and bloggers. The exercise was focused on then needs, dynamics, and interactions of information dissemination during a pandemic. Flublogia luminaries DemFromCT of FluWiki and Fla_Medic of Avian Flu Diary were in attendance as representatives of the Cyber Flu Community's "voice".
From Ms. Schnirring's CIDRAP report:
The exercise was the second time HHS has reached out to blogs. In May 2007, the department featured posts from bloggers such as Michael Coston of Avian Flu Diary and Greg Dworkin, MD, of FluWiki in a 5-week pandemic preparedness blog series. HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt hosts his own blog on the HHS Web site. He is the first cabinet secretary to use the online forum, according to HHS.
"We recognize that during a pandemic information could be life-saving. As more and more people turn to the Internet for information and news, blogs have emerged as an important and influential communications tool," HHS said in its invitation to attend the tabletop exercise.
At several points during the exercise, moderator Forrest Sawyer, a former news anchor with ABC and NBC who now runs his own media production and strategy company, Freefall Productions, asked the news media and online outlets to predict what their headlines would be and what information they would need from HHS, CDC, and other agencies.
During the exercise the communications officials from HHS floated the idea of "embedding" some of their staff in media organizations to ease access to official information during a pandemic. The agency also said its media access policies now treat reputable blogs and other reputable online services the same as traditional media organizations.
Stephanie Marshall, director of pandemic communications at HHS, told CIDRAP News that because growing numbers of people are going to online sources for news and information, "It's important for the government to understand how best to work with bloggers and other online journalists to distribute information. The exercise and the insights offered by the participating bloggers will help us improve and refine our existing pandemic communications plan."
Fla_Medic (Mike Coston) of Avian Flu Diary offers his own thoughts and observations of the off the record tabletop exercise:
The decision to include the flu forums and Internet bloggers in this exercise was a bold one. I'm not sure that they know quite what to make of us yet, but they obviously believe they can't ignore us.
We are, in their words, `The New Media', and they are working out ways to work with us.
As an Influenza Pandemic Blogger and Cyber Flu Community Addict I was nothing short of thrilled to see that the federal government recognizes the internet as something not easily ignored or dismissed and acknowledged the community as having a legitimate "place at the table".
Although we cyber "Flu Obsessed" are a small virtual community we can be vociferous, cantankerous, and downright self righteous at times. HHS's first experience with dealing with the Cyber Flu Community was during their Pandemic Flu Leaders Blog, on which DemFromCT and Fla_Medic were Flublogia's blogger representatives as well.
During that first intrepid online experiment there were times that members of Flublogia were so raucous and vitriolic that I found myself actually embarrassed, and for those that don't know me – that's pretty hard to accomplish. There are places within "the community" that I spare myself the aggravation of visiting (out of politeness I will refrain from mentioning them specifically). I find, alternately, their censorship or their "conspiracy theory" nature to be just too much for the Critical Thinking Libertarian region of my brain.
Flublogia, the Online Cyber Flu Community, is not without its faults. As such I am appreciative of the government's cautious trepidation in opening the door to us. I applaud their understanding that we are a "force" that isn't going anywhere any time soon so accommodation will, it is greatly hoped, benefit everyone.
During a pandemic, especially the early stages, information dissemination will be vital. At times of crisis and emergency the public's appetite for information is ravenous and insatiable and the traditional press has become sloppy. We in Flublogia, faults and all, do a remarkable and rapid job of "self-policing" in general when measured against the "traditional press". Additionally, we have been around long enough now to be a "known commodity", so while I understand the government's trepidation I am hopeful they are not paralyzed by it and the caution it inspires. Time will tell.
As it happens, while I have been composing this entry, I have been listening to CSPAN's program Tonight, Washington where the topic is Influence of foreign media on global issues. The juxtaposition of questions of purpose, credibility, sources, and dissemination between the "traditional" and the "new" media may be serendipitous and coincidental but at the same time informative of the terrible hurdles the government will have to surmount if and when the time comes to actually disseminate credible and timely pandemic information to the public.
I do not envy them their task.