Thursday, October 11, 2012

Heroic Acts

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 we 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."

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

Taking it 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 tea time how the last flu pandemic killed 40 million," intoned 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?"

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 viruses than from the swine variety.

And comedic commentator John Stewart put things into proper perspective: "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 inoculation 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. 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 comes when 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 every development while feeding on each other's excesses.

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.

No comments: