Swine flu coverage
This week, one story has been prominent in our output: swine flu. It's a story which has involved our reporters in Mexico, the US, Europe, Scotland and the rest of the UK, plus our medical and science specialists. And it has challenged us to think hard about our public service role on this kind of news story.
Essentially, our task is to give you the facts; to tell you what we know, but also explore what isn't known; to give you the best scientific and medical information and to inform but not to alarm. There is a great deal of coverage in all the media which has led to a debate about whether the threat is being overplayed. With any public health story, there's a risk that raising awareness can raise concern. We have sought at every step to report the science soberly and responsibly, with due weight given to the uncertainty of what will happen.
We know that audiences have many questions. For the first couple of days, the comments and questions were coming in thick and fast, though they have now slowed. The majority has been from the UK, but there are considerable numbers from Europe and the US too.
Yesterday, BBC Radio 5 Live did a phone-in, taking listeners' questions about the outbreak's impact and attempting to answer them using medical and travel experts. Those contacting the network had a range of questions: "My son's an hour and a half from Mexico City - how exposed is he?" "Are anti-viral drugs safe for pregnant women?" "I'm booked to go to Mexico on 30 April; the airline won't let us cancel and get a refund, what are our options?"
To satisfy those members of our audience who've been contacting our programmes and website with questions, we put together a comprehensive Q&A. In our current Have Your Say debate on the subject, many contributors have now said they believe that the government and media are over-reacting. And World Have Your Say - the World Service global discussion programme - was presented from the rooftop of a hotel in Mexico City yesterday. It asked its audience if the world was over-reacting to swine flu. We heard from many, including Abdullah in Abuja who e-mailed to say that there really was no comparison between swine flu and the kind of diseases many African nations deal with on a daily basis.
There are voices raising important questions about media coverage of this virus. Ben Goldacre - a medical doctor who writes the Bad Science blog - says that he's been struck by the number of people contacting him to say "Is swine flu just nonsense?" and that the media is "utterly" mistrusted on its reporting of health issues. Simon Jenkins, writing today in the Guardian, has said the media has whipped up a panic in order to posture and spend.
So far, the balance we have been trying to achieve is to report what we know and, critically, what isn't known, using the science available - for instance from the Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson and the World Health Organization - as well as what respected scientists are telling us about the possible pattern of this illness. At our editorial meetings, we have been regularly discussing how to get the approach, tone and use of pictures right, and to make sure that we offer our expertise and subject depth via our website.
Interestingly, the signs so far suggest that the public is not panicking - listeners contacting BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat are showing a distinct shift in opinion. Two days ago, they were expressing serious concern, but now - for many - it's receding: "Swine Flu has changed what I'm doing. I yawned at the last radio update. I'd probably not have done that if Swine Flu wasn't mentioned."
This virus - and this story - may fade away, or it may grow. At this point, as our correspondents are saying, we simply don't know. I hope that our reporting in the past few days will help you make sense of what emerges in the next few days, whichever way it develops.
Mary Hockaday is head of the multimedia newsroom