Monday, May 11, 2009

Panic in the Press

Just this past week, I performed a number of death defying acts,
each one so profoundly heroic that strong men trembled and weak men cried.

I left the house.

I withdrew money from an ATM machine.

I ate at a Mexican restaurant.

I attended a baseball game at Dodger Stadium.

I shook hands with people. And even hugged a few.

And I did it all without a mask.

Welcome to Life in the Time of Swine Flu.

I knew were were entering uncharted territory the other day when I
spotted a woman in the supermarket with at least two dozen bottles of hand sanitizer in her
cart, enough to wipe down the Rose Bowl.

Other than that, the only public signs of panic I've seen is on
the part of the media.

What we have had is an outbreak of out-of-control coverage.

"Swine flu-HIV could devastate human race" screamed a headline on
a UPI story.

"Flu Fears Spur Global Triage," pronounced the Wall Street
Journal. "

NBC's Robert Bazell said the government didn't "want people to
panic," but then panicked viewers saying "it appears to be an outbreak unlike anything we've
seen in our lifetimes."

CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked a Centers for Disease Control official,
"Is it time for people . . . to stop shaking hands and to stop hugging each other?"

Not to be outdone, Fox anchor Shepard Smith hinted the flu story
might be "just a distraction" from more serious issues." Another Fox host
darkly repeated Internet reports that "the government knows a lot
more than they are telling us."

Taking it even one step further, syndicated conservative talk show host
Neal Boortz played the terrorist and race card in one deft move: "What better way to sneak
a virus into this country than give it to Mexicans?"

Meanwhile in Great Britain, the London Independent thundered
"Prepared for the Apocalypse", describing Mexico as a "quasi-apocalyptic vision of anonymous faces
shrouded in government-issued surgical masks".

"Sore throat at breakfast … dead by teatime … how the last flu
pandemic killed 40 million," entoned the Express.

Then there was Vice President Joe Biden, saying he was advising
his family to stay off public transportation which prompted the Wall Street Journal to
observe, "Who knew Mr. Biden was talking about himself when he warned last year that Barack Obama
would be tested by crisis early in his presidency?"

On the network news last week, swine flu stories took up a
whopping 43 percent of airtime, according to the Project for Excellence In Journalism.

I would have guessed it was more like 93 per cent.

To be fair, not every media outlet went into hysteria mode. Many
approached the topic with healthy skepticism, reporting that more people die per year from
ordinary flu viris than from the swine variety.

And comedic commentator John Stewart put things into proper
prespective: "Swine flu ranks last on the list of things that can kill you in Mexico."

Truth be told, this was a tough call for a lot of editors.

Scientists and public health officials have been warning for years
about a deadly pandemic. The swine flu scared us in the 1970s, so much so that a massive
innoculation program was initiated which did more harm than good. Bird flu is still lurking
out there somewhere. We've been through the Asian Flu, the Hong Kong Flu and SARS.

Add to that a climbing death rate in Mexico and outbreaks in the
United States. Then the World Health Organzation ratchets up their alert staus to its second
highest level. The President of the United States holds a press conference in which he
expresses "cause for concern, not cause for alarm."

On the other hand, previous pandemic scares have been overblown.

This is not a story you assign to an intern.

The trouble will much of the coverage begins when anchors on the
24-hour-a-day cable news channels pick up the beat. They have a lot of air time to fill and
pretty soon begin to overreact to evey development while feeding on each other's excesses.

Mark Feldstein, a former correspondent for NBC, ABC and CNN,
explained it this way to the Washington Post: "Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn't 24
hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they'll tune in more."

Besides, the media loves doomsday scenarios. Remember Y2K and Mad
Cow Disease?

Then when this hype gets spread on myriad social networking
networks, you have an information pandemic. As of Wednesday, Google listed 19,100,000 hits
for the topic "Swine Flu."

The trick for the media is to balance restraint with the need to
inform the public of an important story. It's a difficult act that sometimes gets lost in the
emotion of the moment.

The result is that the public loses faith in the media. In Texas,
when Fort Worth closed down every single school sending 80,000 students home, the governor
blamed "media hype."

We know that this particular chapter may not be at an end. Some
public health officials warn that the virus could mutate and that a real global outbreak
could occur.

If that happens, will the public view the media as the boy who
cried wolf?

That would make a bad situation worse.

At a time the media is expanding to include any and all voices,
which voice to listen to will become increasingly important.

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