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When is the news real?

While Brian and much of the Nightly News team were in Torino, I was vacationing in Tucson, Ariz., riding horses on a ranch and making friends from all across America who had a lot of questions about the news.

My favorite question was from a young oil executive from Oklahoma. Over drinks at the nightly happy hour, he wanted to know: "is this bird flu thing for real?" We were joined by another friend, an emergency room doctor from Minnesota, and both the doctor and I quickly insisted that, of course, it was: my friend invoked the CDC statistics he receives each week, while I mentioned our own reporting, and journalist friends who have traveled to Romania and Italy to cover the story.  (All this transpired before this weekend's news, where infected ducks and turkeys marked the arrival of the flu in France.)

But heading back to New York, I wondered: did the doctor and I properly answer the question? Our friend wasn't asking whether the news media was making the story up, but whether avian flu, after all the media attention, really posed a health threat to him, to us here in the states.

His question reminded me that we face a constant challenge in journalism: How to report far-away stories when we have a natural tendency to care the most about what happens –- or we believe might happen -— to us. I vividly remember watching the Robert Altman movie "Short Cuts" shortly after my son was born and sobbing during a vignette about a couple whose son is hit by a car on his way to school, fully aware that I was personalizing a fictitious story. Many people experience news the same way, and who can blame them? It's why we start a lot of reports about abstract policy issues with real people and their real problems. And it may explain why the avian flu, because it thankfully hasn't hit our shores, or developed the deadly ability to jump species, doesn't register as a "real" story with all of our viewers.