Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Celebrity babies save swine flu

Tuesday's ME carried an article with the promising title "How well have media covered the flu outbreak?" which started with this from Renee Montagne,
"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 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.


Hubertg said...

Swine Flu breaks out as big freaky scare thing in the news to sell you a bunch of crappola to sell advertising-type-thing crappola.

"Hey folks we got a new cancer cure !! Stay tuned for details at eleven !!"... and we'll tell you that it is all an experiment and won't be available until your dead. Fear sells !! and so does the cure...even if they are all lies and things blown out of proportion.

WarOnWarOff said...

Alternet had a good piece on the media feeding frenzy.

Porter Melmoth said...

Fear sells better than sex!

However, a nurse practitioner friend of mine, whom I respect, had a different angle. The med and public health community (as opposed to Big Pharma) are pleased at the media hype, so as to get Big Pharma to fund more preventative research, as in, to develop vaccines earlier and have them in more quantity for the upcoming season. At least it's an intriguing thought.

As a front line health care worker, my friend is officially 'not worried' about H1N1 (Blob Siegel would hate me for using that 'elitist' term! Very swinish of me, I know.)

Juan "Toss" Ensalada said...

I always find it interesting when NPR tries to present itself as some dispassionate observer regarding a particular event or story. Mara Liarsson does this today in her story about Joe Biden being a gaff machine. I always have this out of body experience when I hear NPR do a media obsession story in the process of obsessing.

Anonymous said...

On the Media has carried a few NPR related stories but they also are basically about the "bad" media as opposed to the bright shiny thing NPR is.

WarOnWarOff said...

Oh, I got into a major email tiff with Bob Garfield when I wrote that NPR was "in the tank" at the On The Media Website.

buh!buh!buh!bunny! said...

Fun with tongue-twisters!

Say "On the Media" like Ira Glass (i.e. semi-articulate and speeded-up). Betcha you'll confuse it with Martha Stewart just like I initially did.

Yeah, you could say that I too think Garf's a knob.

Anonymous said...

What the media almost never provide is context for their stories on SARS, swine flu and other high profile diseases.

"Statistical analyses by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that during the 1990s, flu killed an average of 36,000 people each year, up from previous estimates of 20,000."

That's in the US alone and an average yearly toll over an entire decade. That means over the decade of the 90's over a third of a million people died from ("ordinary everyday" strains of) the flu in the US.

In contrast, the total death toll from the SARS outbreak worldwide was somewhere around 600. Worldwide. In the US NONE died.

The reason for all the panic is that there was a swine pandemic in 1918 that killed from 50-100 million people worldwide.

but, obviously lots of things have changed since then with regard to sanitation, health care, etc, so it's really hard to draw an analogy.

The real problem with NPR and the media in general is the "OJ factor".

They will play up the swine flu for a time and then move on to some other focus (and never revisit swine flu until another case shows up years from now)

Remember bird flu?

Same thing.

The way to address the flu and other health issues is to focus on prevention (vaccination, etc) not outbreaks.

but prevention is boring.

NPR would much rather play up the sexy "possibility of another pandemic" angle.