Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine flu - the real pandemic

I don't mean any disrespect to the folks getting sick with - and dying from - a particularly virulent form of Swine Flu. Any bug that has the potential to end life is, frankly, scary.

I do, however, take issue with the breathless tone of too many media types as they try to get us all to listen to them - and only them - tell us about this story. I woke up this morning to a radio newscaster (term used lightly) who repeated the word "pandemic" in an ever more strident voice, as if I hadn't heard it the first time. By now I'm used to it - this guy loves hearing the sound of his own voice, and I often wonder why a city the size of London tolerates amateur hour antics like this - but I nevertheless fear for those listeners who take this kind of thing at face value.

I don't doubt that Swine Flu is a Very Bad Thing, and I don't doubt it isn't causing suffering and loss. But journos who editorialize their output without taking sufficient time to understand how pandemics work - or how this particular event fits into the broader context of public and global health emergencies - do their audiences a grave disservice.

Perspective please, media folks. It's your job.

Your turn: I would love to see your response to coverage of the unfolding Swine Flu story. Do tell...

One more thing: If the never-ending stream of bad news on this Monday is getting you down, click over here for a brief time out.


Linda said...

I agree that it's out of control when there's only current potential pandemic. However, I don't think it's a good idea to ignore warnings. My husband, who is a doctor, and I talked about this last night. Pandemics, when they occur, can take people by surprise. Having researched pandemics, my husband relayed that "we're due for one." Now, you can take that with a grain of salt just like CA being due for a big earthquake or a volcano being due for an eruption, but in the simplest terms, it's happened before and it will happen again. My belief is that vigilance is good, hypervigilance is not. It's the difference between being concerned and obsessed.

MissMeliss said...

I don't believe in censorship, but I do believe in fact-checking, and I wish the vast majority of journalists would do some before buying into the hype.

First: 1300 sick and 100 dead in a city the size of Mexico City is hardly a pandemic. It's not even an epidemic. Is it sad? Yes. Should people take precautions? Of course, but going to extremes is absurd.

Second: I keep hearing people asking if they should stop eating pork because of this so, for the record: Swine Flu is passed by human contact with live virus. YOU CANNOT GET IT BY EATING PORK. Kissing a live pig, on the other hand...

Thank you, Carmi, for continuing to be a voice for sanity.

Mrs. Fun said...

well....i think the media makes most things bigger than they are. i am not worried and we are a bordering state of mexico.
washing hands a little longer and more often is about all you can do.

Anonymous said...

I sincerely believe that the media should not scare us half to death. Here in parts of Texas schools and businesses have shut down due to this virus.

Thumper said...

I think those of us in the US who remember the outbreak in the 70s are kind of "meh" about it. There was a lot of hype then, but only one person died from it; more died from the vaccination. I won't worry until it seems there's a reason.

Daryl said...

Last nite as we watched the ABC local news we both LAUGHED as the female anchor said in a reassuring tone: ''Stay with Eyewitness News, we'll get you through this crisis''

See Carmi, nothing to worry about! Liz Cho is gonna make sure we all come through this just fine.

David Edward said...

each network tries to be scarier than the last one. THEY have a real problem in Mexico, guns and drug violence, kidnapping, and gangs.
but our state dept issues a travel warning because of the flu
its another 'WHO THE HELL IS AT THE HELM' moment

Sleepypete said...

I kinda skipped over the Swine Flu story on my daily scan of the BBC news site (yep - they're bad but you get a bit of an idea of what's going on). Not so much an uncaring attitude, more a lack of belief in the spin the big media organisations like to put on stories in the quest for hits, viewing figures & sales.

I went straight to the story on Gadget Jargon, it needed a bit of an editorial of my own :-)

Time to get some Orange Juice out the fridge to fend off all those bugs people coming back from Easter Hols are sharing around ...

~j said...

my unedited tweets from this morning's "news"cast are on my blog. enjoy!

hahamommy said...

Paranoia causes all kinds of cancer. I avoid it at all costs ;)

Nikky said...

according to WHO 'a pandemic can start when three conditions are met: a new influenza virus subtype emerges, it infects humans, causing serious illness, and it is spread easily and sustainably among humans'

Avian flu frequently asked questions, World Health Organization, December 5,2005.

after all of that though I do agree that the media hypes the bad news too much.

Unknown said...

Something like this comes along and everyone gets up and arms. But we've numbed ourselves to famine and disease experienced by peoples all over the world daily.

If the media reaction to hunger and AIDS in Africa (as examples) was as intense, we might see more being done about it.

I find it a bit annoying. Yes, the public should be aware of it but do we have to have the latest, all the time, every day on this? I think not.

kenju said...

The sky is falling, Carmi!!

My blog friend Tiff calls it the Porcine Peril!

Carolyn R. Parsons said...

I think as soon as they name something everybody goes nuts. What the heck was that virus a few years ago, Norwalk, yeah, as soon as it was named it was suddenly horrible and dangerous. I look up the symtoms to see what the fuss is and up until it had a name it was the runs and puke virus. Name it Norwalk and we're calling the CDC.

Influenze can kill you if you are immunity challenged..any kind. I believe SARS was the same. Yes it's good to know. But as long as the drug companies can increase their sells of Tamiflu at least the economy is being stimulated right?

As for the media...someday I wish one of them would just mid-sentence call BS and tell the truth. There's no big story here folks..sorry.


Pamela said...

There have been so many "cry wolf" incidents that when something really bad comes along no one will pay attention.

I'm hardly paying attention this time -- maybe this is really it.

Snaggle Tooth said...

The news regurgitated the same "Pandemic" thing so much you couldn't ignore the message.
An "outbreak" is defined as 5 or more concentrated confirmed cases. Pandemic refers to prolifically spreading from person to person.
Epidemic refers to uncontrolled spread over a wide geographical area.

Oh Boy, now the "Extra" news is speculating Obama n maybe Jay Leno were exposed. Talk about hype-

What's scary is how it's spread all over the world, as far as New Zealand already! Also, New York where a school is closed, isin't far away from here, especially with daily shuttle flights from Boston to NYC.

I'm paraniod because of the CanCun-Spring Break vaca thing- I'm afraid my party-town neighbors downstairs could have brought it back- I can hear coughing! As a person with asthma n severe allergic reactions I do have to be vigilant in this situation for my own safety.

Catherine said...

I'm not impressed with the continuing emphasis here on the phrase "potentially deadly". None of the students who have come back from Mexico and been diagnosed with swine flu are particularly sick. In fact, any form of influenza is "potentially deadly" as are many other diseases that are present in all populations already.
Mexico is a poor, crowded country. New Zealand, Canada and the US are not so much - expecially not New Zealand - and I think the level of panic is out of hand.

Mojo said...

The Spanish Flu of 1918 probably tickles the back of everybody's mind any time there's an outbreak like this. And rightly so, in six months that bug killed more people in the US alone than the Black Death did worldwide. But to keep that in perspective, there were a helluva lot more people in the world in 1918 than in the Middle Ages to begin with.

It seems to me that the media thrives on crisis. And if there isn't a crisis, one must be invented -- or a small one inflated -- so they can continue to justify their existence.

This kind of sensationalism can probably be traced directly to the proliferation of "news" outlets in the broadcast media. Back in the Walter Cronkite era, there wasn't so much competition for ratings among newscasts. Facts were checked, and serious journalists did serious journalism.

Enter cable TV. More choices, more competition. More scratching for ratings. More chances of being "scooped". Less time to "get it right". Because breaking the story -- even if it's not quite complete and all the facts aren't in just yet -- is the way to grab viewers=ratings=revenue.

Enter CNN with news 24 hours a day. Is there really enough legitimate news happening in 24 hours that justifies broadcasting 24 hours? Maybe so. But I question that. Apparently I'm the only one however, because next thing you know we have MSNBC and other networks devoted entirely to "news". All competing for the same audience, the same ratings, the same ad revenues.

Fact is, crisis sells and whoever can package it best is going to sell more of it. Any kind of journalistic integrity -- in television news at least -- went down for the third time long ago. Radio is only marginally better and the print media -- where there is actually time to research is on life support. And its online successor? Simply another broadcast outlet.

So the hushed and urgent tones of your local guy as he alerts you to the "gravity of the situation" is little more than a nice ribbon on the package. A package that if you looked in side it would probably be rather disappointing.

Will it change? Perhaps. If someone can find a way to package legitimate news in a responsible fashion and make it sell.

Until then? Get used to Will Farrel-esque anchors selling slickly polished stories that may or may not have any substance.

Lyn said...

A pandemic has been predicted and is unevitable. The medical and scientific community have been warning us to anticipate and prepare. Maybe the media have been over-reporting. That will remain to be seen. A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that spreads through populations across a large region; for instance a continent, or even worldwide.That is what the human swine flu is doing. When the health and well being of a population hinges on the prevention and hygiene habits of that population, can there really be too much coverage? I have been encouraged by the barrage and reinforcement of handwashing techniques and prevention tips - which are applicable to any infectious disease/flu situation. I think rather than get caught up with the quality/quantity of the coverage, we should focus on the core message - reduce the risk, practice good hygiene and be prepared in the event of a third of our population getting ill. That's not sensationalistic - just practical advice.

awareness said...

it is completely and utterly over the top at this point, and it will water down the message when it is time to really crank it up!

like the boy who cried wolf....