Technology can be incredibly useful, but so far, human beings are still smarter than machines, even when it comes to problems that are data-based.

Take the initial stages of a flu outbreak: Local newspaper reports are still an important early-warning detector that epidemiologists use to track cases. In fact, it's some researchers' jobs to collect these stories and populate an online tool called HealthMap, a 12-year-old project begun by Boston's Children's Hospital. They also use information from state and city governments, as well as social media.

So when local papers go under—as they have been doing with some frequency over the past decade or so — that leaves communities without a source for reported stories on what's going on in their area. It also leaves researchers with fewer tools to track disease outbreaks. “We rely very heavily on local news," Maia Majumder, a scientist who specializes in mathematical modeling to track health issues, told Stat News. "And I think what this will probably mean is that there are going to be pockets of the U.S. where we’re just not going to have a particularly good signal anymore."

Understanding the problem

A map from the Columbia Journalism Review of US counties and their corresponding number of papers. The lightest pink counties here have no local newspapers; the darkest reds here indicate seven or more local papers. (Photo: Columbia Journalism Review)

To get an idea of the scope of the problem, take a look at this interactive map, compiled by the Columbia Journalism Review, which shows each county in the United States, and how many daily papers serve it. (If you click through the link above, you'll get to an interactive map, which gives detail about each county; the image above is static.) As you can see, there are plenty of light-colored spaces, which means they have no local paper. White areas are those without data. The light pink areas are the hundreds of counties lacking local news coverage.

Without local news, epidemiologists lose one of their primary sources of information — one that's often faster and includes more details than government reports. This is how details were dug up quickly to track and understand disease transmission in the 2009 H1NI flu outbreak, as well as a widespread case of the mumps in Arkansas in 2016. When it comes to the spread of illness in our increasingly connected world, details matter — and local news can often provide information that simple statistics can't. For instance, reporters linked the Arkansas mumps case to populations who hadn't had vaccines as well as other vulnerable populations that lacked health care. That information allowed health researchers to understand how the problem spread so quickly and unexpectedly.

Can social media solve this problem, providing this kind of data in places newspapers have shuttered? To a degree, though it's not ideal, since sometimes the random things people share on Facebook or Twitter can be incorrect, whereas a journalist's duty is to report news as accurately as possible. “With Twitter … you are picking up a signal, but that signal might not be precise,” Alessandro Vespignani, a Northeastern University professor who studies "techno-social" systems, told StatNews.

Overall, this lack of local coverage doesn't just impoverish already-underserved communities — those without local papers tend to include people who feel underrepresented in their state governments as well — it could even hurt the health of people who live in them.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.