Swine flu or whine flu? How media covered H1N1

Much has been said about media coverage of the H1N1 outbreak – both by the general public and by those of us in agriculture. And most of what is being said hasn’t been very complimentary.

Certainly from farmers’ perspective, the media is to blame for tagging H1N1 with the nickname swine flu and then repeating it over and over again until it now seems permanently and irreparably stuck in the public’s consciousness.

But what do the media think about how they have handled the situation?

That very question was the subject of a lively panel discussion at the recent World Conference of Science Journalists, held in London, England at the beginning of July.

Fergus Walsh, the BBC’s medical correspondent, attributes much of the early hysteria and misreporting about H1N1 to the exaggerated number of deaths released by Mexican authorities. Once that was downgraded, however, much of the wrong information had already gone out and the damage had been done.

“We have more deaths daily from tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS than swine flu,” he says, “But its potential for pandemic and death is what makes it (H1N1) so interesting.”

Walsh has done many influenza stories or in his words, “I’ve been waiting on pandemics for years”. He even went to Vietnam five years ago when H5N1 – the dreaded avian influenza – was threatening the world. For him, the difficulty of reporting on H1N1 is conveying the uncertainties, especially at the beginning of the outbreak, surrounding how serious this situation might be in terms of human illness and death.

“As a reporter, you shouldn’t express certainties if you don’t have any,” he says. “It’s ok to say you don’t know.”

As a way of staying on top of the story and handling the constant stream of breaking news and updates, Walsh started a blog, called Fergus on Flu. H1N1 is a story ideally suited to a blog, he says, because there are daily developments that are important but not always important enough to force themselves onto the newscast.

“News media are kind of like a child in a sweet shop, “says Walsh. “They gorge themselves, then go away and come back a week or a month later and devour again. But this story has incremental levels of news that are important on an ongoing basis.”

Fellow panelist Rob Lyons, writer for Spiked, talked about the need for journalists to take some responsibility for the public cynicism that has evolved as a result of the way media reports epidemics.

“We’ve heard this before with vCJD (variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease) and bird flu to SARS and West Nile when these disease come out of the blue and are presented to us as the Black Death,” he says. “But then a few weeks or months later, we are told it’s in fact not Black Death.”

Lazy journalism makes some reporters simply turn to the worst case scenario or worst numbers they can find for a story which makes it hard for the public to judge what is or is not important when it comes to the news.

And in today’s world, risk and fear have become central to how many people view the world, a development heightened by the media’s tendency to use the word epidemic for things that actually aren’t epidemics, says Lyons, explaining that although obesity is a serious problem, it is not an epidemic in the actual sense of the word.

Crying wolf causes people to become skeptical about things being an actual serious health risk, leaving Lyons to echo Walsh’s belief that it’s ok for a journalist to not have all the answers.

“Journalists should have the ability to say “we don’t know” and if they don’t, they shouldn’t put it into a story,” he asserts.

On the whole, Lyons feels a more balanced and honest approach to disease is needed to avoid over-hyping an outbreak, although admits that this will not be an easy task in our highly risk sensitive society.

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