Swine flu, media fever


There has been a lot of news attention focused on the health crisis sweeping the planet, the much-feared swine flu. It is a story that contains all the elements of a ‘good’ story. It is a real-life drama unfolding before our eyes. It is still in the headlines, but there is a need at this point to reflect upon the reporting of this story. The hard question needs to be asked: Was media coverage of the geared toward public interest?
Reporting has proved to be a matter of filling in as much material on the issue in a tight deadline, which presents a basic problem from the very start. Crises are not necessarily understood in their early phases, especially when they involve the emergence of a viral or bacterial hazard. The SARS epidemic proved this when it hit East Asia. At times the knowledge is simply not there to begin with.

However, when the 24/7 news production system begins to function, there is no capacity to build in this element of uncertainty and/or lack of information. To try and compensate for this deficiency, reports are made on any and every story, rumour and whisper. This momentum means, from a psychological sense, that once started the process needs to be fed with whatever information can be found or guessed at.

Given such a situation, there will inevitably be information that is dubious and perhaps even malicious that enters the public sphere. What will be the effect of this style of journalism? Who benefits?

According to the World Health Organisation there have been a total of 21 countries reporting 1124 cases of the H1N1 (influenza A), commonly referred to as swine flu. The two countries with the highest number of victims: Mexico had 590 laboratory confirmed cases, with 25 deaths; the United States had 286 laboratory confirmed cases, with one death.  This differs greatly from the various initial estimates that have been published in the mass media, with little or no distinction given between suspected and confirmed cases of swine flu in the early stages of the reporting. 
The approach by authorities to control the spread or at least reduce its effects can be clearly divided between the political and technical. Information provided by organisations such as the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States is clear and concise, giving people a chance to be able to take some measures into their own hands. A potential problem for the public is that there may be people who don’t know how to get access to this more reliable information, and rely instead upon gossip and rumours. Having said this, there were a number of articles written that did give some basic precautionary health tips.

However, mass media reporting that has provided a chance for political opportunism that has gone unchallenged. Not everybody loses during such a crisis, and some politicians have been quick to implement measures in the name of public safety and security and hence try to position themselves in a more favourable light.

There was a bizarre story from Queensland, Australia where an elderly patient at hospital was being gnawed on by mice. Someone who was interviewed clearly laid the blame on the Premier, who was, in his opinion, using the swine flu as a media opportunity while ignoring the other problems.

There have been cases where people coughing on planes have been quarantined. Basic human rights and liberties have been eroded, and the presumption of guilt reigns. True, there was little known about H1N1 and its lethality. But there is also the basic facts: people do sneeze, they do catch colds. And it does not have to be swine flu. Public interest has been under threat and there has been no one acting as the safety net.

The issue of trade, which has been affected or could be affected by bans, has been a hot issue, too.  Arguments both for and against banning imports or restricting travel have raised questions of legality and fairness. Extremely alarmist reports have been entertained in spite of their very dubious assumptions. A report by an Australian thinktank suggested 51,500 New Zealanders could die from swine flu and the economy shrink by 18 percent.  There was no judgment on the value of this statement and no counter-arguments. Once again, the question needs to be asked: who benefits from such reporting? Why the associations and comparisons with the Spanish Flu? Who was funding the researchers? These kind of questions need to be answered in order to understand the agenda of those sending such alarmist messages.

I was watching the BBC World News Programme when an item about the swineimage flu appeared. Reporters were being briefed by a politician. When he was asked if there was going to be any ban or restrictions placed on travel and trade, the answer was no. The reasoning given was that the spread probably could not be stopped and such a move would hurt trade. Where was the follow up question? There was none. Even given the uncertainties and my scepticism concerning just how deadly this virus is, he should have been put to the test: “Do you put money concerns before the safety of human life”?

Reflecting on these various events, and how journalists have been covering the swine flu story, I have been asking why these apparent failures have occurred. It seems that in the hour of most need, journalists reverted to the role of taking dictation. Analysis and investigation were, for the most part, absent. This may boil down to the point of how politicians, authorities and the mass media see debate. In the past, debate was something engaged in, which brought about enlightenment on a problem or a question. It was essentially positive in nature.

Today this good association has been lost, replaced instead with the notion that by asking questions (especially tough ones), we are instead being argumentative and unconstructive. Thus political decision-making is made in the absence of debate. Consensus is a result of silence.

Debate needs to be revived. It widens the scope of knowledge on a question and means that accountability is more likely.

Flickr images from users Svadilfari, amitp and Sarihuella