Eradicate word misuse in infectious disease story

Dan Colley, director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging, visited our Health and Medical Journalism class on April 16 to give some helpful tips to reporters covering infectious disease news stories.

During the talk, he listed terms often misused by journalists—such as virus, bacteria and worms. These words often are used as if they were interchangeable.

Journalists also confuse drugs, which typically treat a disease, and vaccines, which usually are taken before you contract a disease (although this isn’t the case with rabies).

Another set of misused terms are the ones referring to how well public health officials are dealing with an outbreak.

Control, elimination, eradication and extinction describe how much sway public health have over an infectious disease.

–       Control means they haven’t gotten rid of the disease, but they’re keeping it in check.

–       Elimination means they have gotten rid of an infection in a defined geographic area.

–       Eradication means the disease is gone, and there is no need for surveillance.

–       Extinction means the disease is “really” gone, not to return.

As for extinction, Colley said, “I don’t know what that means in the days of Jurassic Park.” Scientists are cloning and reviving once extinct disease in the labs—so it’s doubtful whether any infectious disease has a good chance of becoming extinct. Even eradicated diseases, such as small pox, are still kept in high-security labs.

The problems with misusing the words, Colley said, are that it confuses the public and it kind of ticks off the experts.

Journalist likely tend to misuse words for two reasons: 1) ignorance or laziness (it’s not that hard to look it up or ask and 2) to avoid word repetition.

Good writers love word variety and using the term vaccine in two consecutive sentences feels repetitive. It seems easier to just drop the word “drug” in there for variety’s sake. But being factual should always take precedence over style.

While Colley has published thousands of articles in academic journals, he estimates maybe five people read each article (probably an understatement). Whereas journalists’ stories about these infectious disease have the potential to reach millions (probably an overstatement).

Hyperbole aside, journalists have a responsibility to accurately inform readers about serious public health issues like infectious diseases.

“Don’t screw it up,” Colley told us.


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