On a recent Friday I was dispatched by Holland America Line to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to be on hand for the arrival of the 1,260-passenger Maasdam. The ship was returning from a roundtrip 10-day Panama Canal cruise and had reported an incidence of more than 6 percent of suspected norovirus cases among its passengers and crew. A total of 268 guests and crew had reported to the infirmary with symptoms (vomiting and/or diarrhea), but by the time the ship arrived at Port Everglades, only a small number were still symptomatic.
Norovirus is the second most prevalent illness after the common cold, affecting more than 26 million Americans annually. The reason the illness became known as the “cruise ship virus” is because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Program requires cruise ships calling at North American ports to report any instances of illness affecting more than 3 percent of the shipboard population.
While norovirus causes the closing of numerous hospital wards, schools and college dorms every year, it is the reports of noro on cruise ships that unfailingly interest the media. Journalists never seem to tire of the image of a ship full of vomiting vacationers.
And so it was on a slow news day Friday, when a routine nonstory became a full-on media frenzy for South Florida news outlets.
It started when the CDC posted on its website Maasdam’s infection rate the preceding Wednesday — two days prior to the ship’s arrival at Fort Lauderdale. Usually, the CDC posts reports the day the ship arrives.
As a result, the local NBC affiliate was tipped that the ship was returning to port with sick people onboard. So the station diverted its traffic helicopter Friday morning to shoot aerial video of Maasdam docked at Port Everglades and ran a voice-over report on the norovirus outbreak on board.
NBC had scooped its rivals, setting off a chain reaction of me-too coverage that at one point had four satellite trucks and five video crews covering the disembarkation of 1,100 or so guests at Port Everglades live for their noon news shows. In addition, I fielded calls and emails from the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel, Bloomberg News and CNN in addition to calls from the U.S. Coast Guard and the port’s public service officer and communications director.
My job on site was to make sure the news reporters had the latest Holland America statement, answer any questions they might have (off camera and not for attribution) and, where possible, to ensure the coverage was accurate and not sensational.
I was only partly successful. One of the reporters pointed to a crew member who was clearly painting the side of the ship and asserted that the “super cleaning” crew was sanitizing both the inside and the outside of Maasdam. Since he was spouting that nonsense on live TV, I had no opportunity to correct him.
Another reporter told me he had asked for this assignment: “Anytime I have a chance to say ‘diarrhea’ on live TV, I’ll jump at it. And if I get to say ‘projectile vomiting,’ well, that’s icing on the cake.”
Of course, since the cruise line disembarked the last few sick people first, they were long gone by the time the video crews arrived, so no sick or previously sick people were available to be interviewed. As usual, it was the cranks and crackpots who went on camera, with the most serious complaint being that the ship would not allow guests to serve themselves at the buffet, creating lines. Most of the passengers who spoke to the media praised the way the officers and crew handled the situation.
The NBC affiliate sent a reporter I’ve worked with for nearly two decades to take the “hand off” of the story. He followed up the noon report with a two-minute, 30-second live report from the port on the evening news. To fill out his piece, he used some of the additional background facts and perspective I supplied when we chatted earlier in the day.
So, in the end, the station that started the whole newsless news cycle with their early-show aerials got in the last word, too.
It’s amazing to consider the amount of news resources the local stations dedicated to what was truly a non-story. From Seattle-based Holland America Line’s perspective, however, my presence enabled the company to ensure the news stories were as accurate as possible, and to receive regular reports from a scene that unfolded 3,314 miles away.