The Swine Flu-Necktie Epidemic: How to Write a Cautionary Medical Article

Everyone's talking about swine flu, which means medical journalists are in high demand. But how do you come up with new angles on something so overplayed and relatively straightforward?

This is the same existential dilemma diet writers face. After all, there are only so many permutations of "eat less, exercise more" available in the English language. Likewise, we all know the basics for swine flu (wash hands, cover mouth) and are reaching critical saturation with the advanced stuff (tamiflu shortages, virus hot spots) which means medical journalists have to get creative if they want to send us into H1N1-induced panics these days. But don't give up hope! Here's a lesson from The Wall Street Journal's Rebecca Smith on how you, too, can send the reading masses scrambling for the Purell:

1. Open with a banal fact that everyone takes for granted.

Neckties are rarely, if ever, cleaned.

2. Describe how said banal fact is actually menacing.

When a patient is seated on the examining table, doctors' ties often dangle perilously close to sneeze level.

3. Bolster the argument with expert consensus.

In recent years, a debate has emerged in the medical community over whether they harbor dangerous germs.

The British Medical Association already decided the issue. It recommended in 2006 that physicians jettison "functionless" articles of clothing, including neckties, "as superbugs can be carried on them."

4. Quell doubt with confusing quantitative evidence.

An 2004 analysis of neckties worn by 42 doctors and medical staffers at the New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens found that nearly half carried bacteria that could cause illnesses such as pneumonia and blood infections. That compared with 10% for ties worn by security guards at the hospital.

5. Add a dash of controversy for flair...

But many doctors favor ties for the air of formality they lend the profession.

6. ...And a pinch of creative solutions to really dazzle 'em.

That has turned into an opportunity for April Strider, founder of SafeSmart Inc. The St. Augustine, Fla., company sells ties treated with a stain-resistant coating that the company says thwarts microbes.

Congratulations, you just wrote a scary and/or enlightening article about the swine flu epidemic. If you're lucky, you'll get top billing at the front of your publication and a stipple illustration to boot. [WSJ]