With all the craziness happening around the country and globe, I find I don't focus on what goes on in my own geographic world. But one recent story popped out: Humboldt County's scary spike in cases of hepatitis C.
The news came from a report Humboldt County Public Health Officer Don Baird made to the Board of Supervisors in June. Daniel Mintz reported on it for the Humboldt Independent and Mad River Union, and Sierra Jenkins wrote about it for KIEM-TV's website. I didn't see the news in the Times-Standard, Lost Coast Outpost or this paper, though the Journal has mentioned the high hep-C rates in past articles on the county's drug addiction problems.
According to the report, some 7,000 people in the county have hepatitis C — that's 5 percent of the county's population or more than the combined populations of Myrtletown and Cutten. KIEM reported that the county is seeing more than 500 new cases every year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hep-C kills more people in this country than 60 other infectious diseases combined, including HIV, pneumonia and tuberculosis. If that isn't scary enough, the CDC says half of all people infected with hep-C don't know it. That means the numbers are probably even scarier than we know.
Personally, I don't fear I'll get it. It is highly infectious but it is one of those blood-to-blood diseases. You are most likely to get it passing infected needles around. But with that many people in our county infected, how can I not care? According to the publication Health Day, one in five people infected with hepatitis C will die from cancer or cirrhosis of the liver. That's 1,400 people here we are talking about.
The tragedy is that this is a preventable and curable disease. As with HIV, you can prevent it if you avoid any transmission of bodily fluids. That means protected sex and clean needles. And there are effective 12-week cures, although they could cost from $80,000 to $120,000, according to various medical news sites.
As a journalist, I was always on the lookout for a wow story. You know it when you find it because you find yourself saying, "Wow!" When you find a wow story you drop whatever else is on your plate. And you continue to report and write about it until you report everything your readers need or want to know about it, or until a bigger or more pressing story comes along.
In this case, you start with the numbers, which are wow! But there is more. What exactly is the county doing about it? Who are the people who are infected and how are they faring? What, if anything, is the county doing to help them?
Any journalist who ignores a story like this because he or she thinks readers won't care isn't doing his or her job. It's the journalist's job to get people to care about important issues. Sometimes that takes some creativity. It takes finding the people your reader will care about. That might be an overworked doctor or nurse or social worker. It might seem callous but it might mean finding someone who has hepatitis C who isn't a homeless drug user. It might mean introducing your readers to a homeless drug user and showing how human the person is. It is the journalist's job to show readers how connected they are to the people in the story. In this county it isn't that hard. We are all connected. If you think you don't know anyone with hepatitis C, you are likely wrong. If you have school-age children, there are parents and siblings of their peers who are likely infected. If you have co-workers with family, you are not far removed from people with hep-C. The CDC says the vast numbers of people with hepatitis C are baby boomers — before advances in blood testing in 1992, people could get it from transfusions. In rare cases, you could get it from mononucleosis — known as the "kissing disease" in college. I caught that my senior year.
Daniel Mintz and KIEM didn't ignore the story. But too often our local media fails to follow up. It doesn't really help readers to be superficially informed about important issues. It just makes us all more anxious. I believe that stories about problems should always be followed with stories about solutions. I'm one of those people — there are lots of us — who have constant anxiety, and I wonder if it correlates to my news appetite. I'd like to see a study of news readers versus the ignorant. Ignorance is probably way more blissful.
The journalist who ignores stories or drops them because the solutions seem too costly or otherwise out of reach also fails her readers. Governments don't solve problems unless they are pushed to do so. And people don't push their leaders unless someone rallies them.
Maybe one of the reasons people seem so self-absorbed these days is the failure of our established media to show us how genuinely connected we really are in contrast to the superficial connections social media present.
People do care about inequity and injustice. You can see that in the instant online petitions that materialize these days. I don't think inaction stems from laziness or apathy. I think people fail to act because they don't know how to. That's why so many people got off their asses to attend Bernie Sanders rallies; because, finally, a guy said, "Let's tackle these serious issues together."
News stories can make people care and spur them to act. That happens when the story is about someone in particular, the thing reported is something that is just not right, and finally, readers learn that something could, in fact, be done.
Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism at Humboldt State University.