How Well Have Media Covered The Flu Outbreak?
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Headlines for the past 10 days have featured words like pandemic, outbreak and contagion - certainly likely to set off lots of alarm bells, though NPR's David Folkenflik suggests the media has handled the topic of swine flu more responsibly than some might think.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The moment that triggered my attention was when CNN's Rick Sanchez asked viewers and his followers on Twitter: is it OK to panic yet. Not ok, says University of Minnesota journalism Professor Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.
Professor GARY SCHWITZER (Journalism, University of Minnesota): When you start fear mongering in all of your messages - on air or on your Web site - I don't think we're serving the public in the best way.
FOLKENFLIK: He has his own idiosyncratic solution.
Prof. SCHWITZER: When I saw this one comment I thought to myself I don't think I'm going to want to watch this on TV news, because of the track record.
FOLKENFLIK: So he says he's seen none. And before you dismiss his approach, know this: Schwitzer was CNN's top health correspondent for most of the 1980s. This time around, he missed out on questions like these posed by CNN's John Roberts.
Mr. JOHN ROBERTS (Correspondent, CNN): Is this the killer virus that we've all been fearing for decades? Is it just a threat? Is this, you know, 1976, where we had a small contained outbreak, or is this 1918, where 20 million people died worldwide?
FOLKENFLIK: Even beyond menacing tone, the sheer volume of the coverage throughout the media is alarming. I spoke with CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta last week by phone from Mexico City, where he was reporting.
Dr. SANJAY GUPTA (Medical correspondent, CNN): There's a lot of questions in situations like this. And sometimes what we're reporting on is frightening.
FOLKENFLIK: But Gupta says the intense coverage serves a purpose.
Dr. GUPTA: There's also a tendency to believe that the more information and knowledge we provide, the more of a calming effect that can have. So we protect people and calm them at the same time.
FOLKENFLIK: Last Monday, coverage spiked after repeated White House warnings about the flu. ABC News devoted about two-thirds of its nightly newscast, "World News," to the subject. John Banner is the program's executive producer.
Mr. JOHN BANNER (Executive producer, "World News"): The very fact that the public officials were coming out so often to brief the public, was taken by a sign of a lot of people that they should be very concerned about what was going on.
FOLKENFLIK: Banner and others say it takes time to put the outbreak in context. Reporters repeatedly took pains to point out that the more routine flu virus kills 36,000 Americans a year.
Mr. STUART MARQUES (Managing editor, New York Daily News): There is some legitimate fear, but at the same time, you know, you can't go out there and just whip people into a frenzy.
FOLKENFLIK: That's Stuart Marques, managing editor of the New York Daily News, which has had a few big front page headlines, including "Silence of the Hams" to describe the mass slaughter of pigs in Egypt, but which has been for a New York tabloid, relatively restrained.
Mr. MARQUES: You know, you have to just basically go out and do it as responsibly as you can.
FOLKENFLIK: And that reminds me of how many other obsessions have been indulged by the news media over the past week, like accused serial killers.
Unidentified Woman: All women they say he met on Craigslist.
FOLKENFLIK: Celebrity babies.
Unidentified Man #1: Two years ago, superstar Madonna adopted toddler David Banda from the…
FOLKENFLIK: And the anti-tax activists.
Unidentified Man #2: And tell them everything that you've been screaming at…
FOLKENFLIK: And that's no even including party-hopping Senators, retiring Supreme Court justices, faltering car companies or newly surging stocks. All of them were covered, too, which could be a testament to how compressed the news cycle has become or a testament to the media's relatively responsible handling of the flu story, at least so far.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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