"Headlines for the past ten days have featured words like pandemic, outbreak and contagion. Certainly likely to set off alarm bells..."I couldn't believe it. NPR was actually going to analyze their coverage of their biggest story over the past week. They rarely acknowledge any critique beyond the carefully selected and highly contrived Listeners' Letters segments.
Unfortunately, I was immediately disabused of that fantasy as Montagne continued,
"NPR's David Folkenflik suggests the media has handled the swine flu more responsibly than some might think."In fact, Folkenflik never even mentioned NPR, deciding instead to focus on CNN's coverage.
To be honest, I didn't find NPR's covereage of the swine flu particularly bad, beyond the fact that they dedicated an inordinate amount of time and energy to the story -- as many as three or more full articles per show, plus the breathless updates in the hourly news summaries -- without ever really explaining why it was such a big story. As Folkenflik put it,
"Even beyond menacing tone, the sheer volume of the coverage throughout the media is alarming..."Exactly. After 30 or more ME and ATC articles plus constant updates on the progression of the outbreak, I definitely understood that this was a HUGE story and that I should be VERY afraid, but I had no idea why (other than the vague understanding that I was probably going to die). This last point was addressed in a separate article on Wednesday's ATC:
"The first reports about swine flu in Mexico made the disease sound highly lethal. But now, just a couple of weeks later, public health officials are saying the new H1N1 strain may be no more deadly than plain old seasonal flu..."This article pointed out that this pattern has been seen many times before, most recently with SARS in 2003 and West Nile Disease in the late 1990s.
"Disease experts say a downgrade isn't surprising. It's a product of the way most disease outbreaks are detected... Swine flu isn't the first outbreak to look terrifying early on."Rather than excusing their "terrifying" coverage, you'd think these recent examples of the authorities and the media overestimating the mortality rates and exaggerating the risks might have led NPR to be a little more restrained.
Folkenflik ends his piece with,
"And that reminds me of how many other obsessions have been indulged by the news media over the past week, like accused serial killers, celebrity babies, and anti-tax activists...which could be a testament...to the media's relatively responsible handling of the flu story, at least so far."Apparently, as long as the "news" over the last week also included the usual lame distractions, the media were being responsible in their coverage of the swine flu. This philosophy might explain a lot about NPR: As long as we include lots and lots of junk, our overall coverage will have to balance out.