Unfortunately, UCSF was bearing the burden of an apology that should have been made by journalists. The university’s press release was actually very straightforward. It’s more likely that reporters didn’t read the original scientific paper carefully enough. We can turn once again to the example of Reuters’ article, which noted that MRSA “is beginning to appear outside hospitals in San Francisco, Boston, New York and Los Angeles.” First of all, MRSA began to appear outside hospitals (where such staph infections are particularly common) over a decade ago. Worse still, the article does not even mention the USA300 strain, which is what researchers were actually studying, and continues to refer to MRSA generally, surely sowing confusion among inattentive readers.
This lack of specific context for USA300 was a serious problem in most of the coverage. A couple of outlets, including London’s Daily Telegraph, reported that USA300 was discovered in 1999 after four children died in North Dakota. That is completely false; those deaths stemmed from a different type of staph infection entirely. Only The San Francisco Chronicle’s Sabin Russell accurately reported (or even bothered to mention) the history of USA300, that it was discovered in 2001 and how the new, multidrug-resistant strain was discovered in 2003. The Wall Street Journal also flubbed an important detail in its story, published last Tuesday. It reported that “gay men are thirteen time as likely to have” USA300 as heterosexuals, which is true, but only in San Francisco. By omitting those last four words, the Journal implied that the finding is national in scope, which is not the case.
In fact, the possibility that the infection will go national is a big worry for the study’s lead author, Dr. Binh Diep. Many articles noted that nearly 19,000 people died from MRSA infections in 2005, mostly from a weaker form of USA300, and a lot of the public uproar last week was the result of quotes from Diep fretting that the more virulent form could “spread to the general population.” It’s a legitimate concern, but again, context was missing from most articles. The new, multidrug-resistant strain of USA300 “is presently rare” in the general population, according to the study, and there is reason to believe it is spreading “exclusively” among gay men-but that does not mean that it is exclusive to gay men.
When dealing with such a socio-politically charged topic, reporters must emphasize (as Lawrence Altman did in The New York Times’s first article on the subject last week) that even though the infection is prominent among gay men, it has occurred among non-gays as well (hospital workers in particular), and that it is not a sexually transmitted disease. Homosexual intercourse, in other words, is an important risk factor (in a couple cities at least), but not the root of infection.