The Zika virus and the health fears have grabbed the attention of the public and the media. While the interest is there, there have also been calls to use caution in the coverage of the virus and its link to serious birth defects such as microcephaly (babies born with smaller heads and brains).
"I see that GAM is not going nuts with Zika, while [broadcast media] are doing lots of 'Canada scared' stories. I applaud the decision-making not to frighten. Is this a conscious decision?" one reader asked.
Science writer Joe Rojas-Burke said on Twitter (@rojasburke) that he was troubled by what he called "the media's cavalier use of microcephaly photos, when these human beings are used as decoration, their stories untold." He noted especially two photos of infants "used over and over by media outlets."
Earlier this week, The Globe and Mail's South America correspondent, Stephanie Nolen, wrote about the debate over reproductive rights in conservative countries.
In the newspaper, the story included a long-lens photo of a woman, Mylene Helena Ferreira, carrying home her five-month-old son David, who was born with microcephaly.
Online is a much larger package showing a photo with a public-health technician's arm covered with sterile mosquitoes. It also has a video that includes three photos of affected babies and an interview with a pregnant Canadian woman who decided to cancel a trip to Jamaica after she received medical advice.
The first reference to the Zika virus came last May, also by Ms. Nolen, who wrote a two-page Folio article on an experiment to genetically modify mosquitoes. Online, it includes photos of mosquitoes, a video and photo showing the release of genetically modified mosquitoes, a world map showing the risk areas and graphics showing how the mosquitoes are developed and how the genetically modified mosquito works.
Ms. Nolen wrote about the link to microcephaly in early December. Again, the main photo was of mosquitoes. An online story on Monday by her on the World Health Organization saying the spike in neurological conditions microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome is a health emergency included a close-up photo of mosquitoes, a video by The Associated Press with interviews of WHO officials, explaining that the crisis is linked to Brazil. "Brazil is the only country so far. We have not seen microcephaly associated with Zika in any other place," the spokesman for WHO said.
The story also included a photo gallery showing WHO officials, the fumigation of houses and schools, a medical clinic and one photo of David Henrique Ferreira, five months old, who was born with microcephaly (possibly the same child as photographed in the newspaper this week).
As to the reader's point above, The Globe has published just two stories of Zika related to Canadians. This one says there are four cases in Canada, but the threat is "very, very low," according to Canada's chief public health officer. The cases all related to people who recently travelled to affected areas. "The mosquitoes known to transmit the virus are not established in Canada and are not well suited to our climate," Dr. Gregory Taylor said. "For this reason, the risk of Zika virus infection in Canada is considered very low."
Again, it included more mosquito pictures and a Canadian Press video of Health Minister Jane Philpott discussing the issue with reporters.
In the past two weeks, there have been 22 Zika-related stories. Two have repeated a link to the video mentioned above, and there have been two photos of babies born with microcephaly.
It's worth noting that this is one of those stories best told online, where there is ample room to show photos and videos and to explain the science and the public-health issues as part of the in-depth coverage. It is a difficult story to tell in a few seconds or words.
I asked Deputy Editor Sinclair Stewart the reader's question about whether it has been a conscious decision for The Globe to cover the story the way it has. "Yes, it's something we discuss and debate at great length. As with all major public-health stories, whether it be Zika or SARS, the guiding principle is to provide the public with as much credible information as possible without being unduly alarmist or sensational."
On the question of the photos, he said the philosophy is "pretty straightforward: Choose the best photo for the story. The file in this regard has been plentiful, and frankly, there's little reason to be republishing the same generic shots. In fact, we've consciously avoided it."
In my view, the coverage has not been sensationalized and the photos of the babies have not been overused. It is an important public-health story and there is still much unknown about the virus. It is reasonable to show photographs of the babies so that people will understand the condition. And not publishing any photos could be seen as increasing the stigma of people with disabilities.
However, I agree that care should be taken not to keep repeating the same photos, especially anonymously.