Flu outbreak: Walking the line between hyping and helping

April 27, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

There’s nothing like a disease outbreak to highlight the value of the media in alerting and informing the public in the face of an emergency.

There’s also nothing like it to bring out some of our more excessive behavior, essentially shouting “Run for your lives! (but, whatever you do, stay tuned, keep reading the website and don’t forget to buy the paper!).”

An outbreak of a form of influenza, which was known as swine flu before the World Health Organization changed the name, has killed scores in Mexico and infected others in the United States, Canada, Europe and New Zealand. It’s already having an effect on markets and travel plans, in addition to the obvious impact on public health.

The impact on markets could become more significant in time, but the impact on the media was practically immediate.

Cable television programmers went into crisis mode and a look at newspaper front pages and website home pages around the world showed a range of responses, from the almost hysterical to the concerned and more measured.

  • In the New York Daily News: “SWINE FLU SPREADS!” (though it was played below a sports story on the New York Yankees losing to the Boston Red Sox).
  • In the New York Post: “HOG WILD!” (also playing second to the Yankees’ humiliation, but illustrated with a pig sucking on a thermometer).
  • In The Japan Times (using a Reuters story): “Swine flu in Mexico sparks global panic”
  • In the South China Morning Post (which certainly has experience in covering bird flu and SARS): “Asia on high alert for swine flu as airports step up checks.”
  • In The Guardian: “Swine flu: call for global action as outbreak spreads.”
  • In the Toronto Sun: “CALM URGED AS FLU FEARS GROW.”

Later Monday, after the European Union health commissioner advised Europeans to postpone nonessential travel to the United States and Mexico, The New York Times led its website with “Europe Warned on U.S. Travel,” with a deck reflecting transatlantic disagreement, “Flu Advisory Unwarranted, C.D.C. Says.”

The BBC website focused on the confirmation of flu cases in the UK, with extensive Q&A’s on the origins of the disease and how it spreads and contributions from readers who were dealing with disease (some of them medical professionals in Mexico).

Big, bad-news stories can mean surges in audiences for media outlets and they certainly raise the adrenalin level of editors and reporters. They offer the temptation to go to excess, but they also offer the opportunity for us be of priceless service to our customers, clients and readers.

The question for me is how we in the media make sure we report accurately and informatively on the story and its impact on the markets and consumers’ lives without minimizing and without sensationalizing it.

“This is the type of story where our goal to stay factual and keep perspective is essential to uphold,” says Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger. “Our role is neither to trivialize nor to hype or scaremonger, but to describe accurately what is happening and put its implications in context.”

Reuters has focused a great deal of resources—rightly, given our customers and audience—on the implications for the markets and the impact on the global economic downturn.

On Monday afternoon, Reuters.com was leading with “Will global recovery catch the flu?” atop a package of stories on possible market scenarios, the EU travel warning and factboxes on health precautions and industries being affected. One story noted, not surprisingly, that travel and tourism stocks were in turmoil.

Reuters.com also featured a special coverage page with the latest news, accompanied by a sober presentation of “Swine Flu Facts.” There’s even an invitation to receive updates on Twitter. Call me a skeptic on Twitter, but 140 characters won’t do much to add context to the story. Still, no one ever said Twitter was about context and at least you can follow developments, whether or not you’re near a computer.

My Reuters colleagues—especially the ones working bravely and tirelessly in Mexico—are succeeding in upholding the goal of staying factual and keeping events in perspective. It’s our mission to provide the information and insight our audience and customers need to make intelligent decisions about their investments and their lives. As shown by the World Health Organization’s decision Monday to raise the pandemic alert to Level 4, and later to Level 5, there’s plenty of drama to report without adding to it.

The flu story is still in its early stages and it remains to be seen if this becomes one of the biggest stories of our time. Whatever happens, it won’t hurt us all to take a deep breath now.

74 comments

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The CANADIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION (CMA) made a rather stark and dismal prediction in August of 2008. And, the strange thing is; there were no images of PERSONS, constantly appearing on the Main Stream Media (MSM) news papers, websites, and of course in High Definition on digital TVs wearing surgical or chemical masks (respirators). The World Health Organization (WHO) had nothing much to say about this drastic prediction which the CMA had made. The CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL & PREVENTION (CDC) in the UNITED STATES, also did not appear too concerned, especially given their close proximity to the geographic landmass known as Canada. The basis for my assumption, leading me to believe that neither of these CORPORATE organizations had attached much or any concern, actually became somewhat obvious. By this I make reference; there was an imminent predicted demise of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of human beings, but yet, it was business as usual. You could have hopped on a jet plane and fly to Mexico, drive across the North American borders to do some shopping, no problemo…no alert measures went into effect, i.e., like the WHO is doing now, e.g. “Alert 5″ or, as the UNITED STATES HOMELAND SECURITY might soon do, with their trendy color system, e.g. “Amber Alert.” Well, I’ve rambled on long enough now, so I’ll come to my point: In August 2008, the CMA claimed that up to 21,000 Canadians will die this year (2008), due to air pollution, and with 3,000 of those deaths due to short-term exposure to smog. I don’t know of any pharmaceutical research CORPORATIONS that are currently trying to develop a VACCINE for air pollution or SMOG. So, perhaps a flu pandemic might actually be a good thing…being locked down in our homes, and or detained in FEMA detention camps, will definitely be pay back to the industry, which ultimately must bear the responsibility for the deaths of 21,000 human beings. Last reported, Mexico was losing $53 million dollars per day, because of the flu.

Posted by Christopher-Peter: Maingot | Report as abusive

Great to read a balance. I am in Mexico right now, been here some time. I am shocked at the BS media hype coming out in my country back home … causing a panic.

The main misleading statement is saying there are 150 dead without backing this up with the facts.

The facts are only eight people have been officially confirmed deaths from the virus and these cases my not be directly from the virus.

They also forget to mention the thousands who die of the flu and complications each year. e.g. about 100 a day in the USA alone.

I think it is shameful they way the media is hypering this up and misleading the public. And the terrible impact on the country of Mexico. Mexico is a great place to live and retire, rated number one by the organization International living two years running.

Danny

Posted by danny | Report as abusive

This is an alarm that world has to wake up. This is an obvious that world is going to loose so many billion people this year as the testimony was said by so many christian server begining of this year. well we are not that far before the government can step in and stop the big tragedy

As serious as a pandemic can be, the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century is a prime example, things can get out of hand. Remember that swine flu has been with us before. In 1976 it was detected on a US military base. There seems to have been some deaths, and then the subsequent over reaction in vaccinating millions of Americans. The vaccine proved to be more deadly (many people got serious, long lasting side effects) than the virus itself.

That being said, it would be a mistake to try to label this “The Mexican Flu” just as it is misleading to name the 1918 pandemic “The Spanish Flu” as it actually originated in the US. No one is sure where the new N1H1 strain originated, but it has been here before, and some think that this might have even been the very same virus from 1918.

Medicine has come a long way, in 1918 there weren’t even antibiotics readily available. As to why many people are dying in Mexico City, (150 out of 22 million is a strange thing to call many) it is the most populated city in the world with high poverty (difficult to get treatment if you have no insurance or money). I also read that many in Mexico are having a difficult time getting the two viral drugs available to combat N1H1.

Bottom line. Relax, be extra cautious and clean, and make sure you eat well. God Bless

Posted by Marco | Report as abusive

A nice lttle site to save you surfing the web about swine flu. seems to have all the main links and info you would need http://www.swine-flu-information-site.co m/

Posted by Rod | Report as abusive

It’s hype – just like the bird flu scare a few years ago. every media outlet will exaggerate in order to secure more audience for ad sales, and every government will exaggerate to have a handy excuse to assume ‘special powers’ – like they just did in Mexico. At this rate, I imagine the TSA here in the States will be taking throat cultures before they let you board a plane.

Take disease outbreaks seriously – sure. You wouldn’t want to be the government that did nothing until it was too late. But to scare half my neighbors into stocking up on surgical masks and half the third world into slaughtering all their pigs? In a week, I expect to hear about the sanitation crisis resulting from all those carcasses).

There is a middle ground between blind panic and sleepy complacency. We used to be able to count on the news to help us find it.

Posted by DrMugatu | Report as abusive

I think it’s an outrage the hype this story is getting. The news media just doesn’t have enough to say to be on air 24/7. This is more irresponsible than their usual panic though. Schools have closed, the stock market has been affected – people are so frightened. And, for what – So far, one person has died of this strain of flu – whereas, in a normal outbreak, thousands die routinely from flu.

I live in Mexico, close to the Belizean border. It astounds me how everyone has over reacted to this. I know it could be serious, and I don’t want to minimize any possible danger but it is frightening to see an entire country completely shut down. My workers are frightened and the information coming from all countries is so confusing. If you go to the CDC and WHO websites and get real information, it is far less serious than is being hyped. I’m a citizen of the US but I’m ashamed at the misinformation and superiority that I feel coming from my own country. I think Mexico has done a brave thing in shutting down the country. Would any other country do this with 20 confirmed deaths? I don’t think so. Someone out there owes Mexico some Kudos.

Has anyone found out if the HIN1 strain in Mexico is fatal or is it that the patients were not given the adequate antiviral medication on time? Example a healthy 29 yrs Mexican died after 9 days . However all the cases outside Mexico have recovered ( except for the Mexican baby in Taxes). Is this a case of mistreatment or the strain being more virulent and deadly?

Posted by shan | Report as abusive

I think this article needs to be circulated around Reuters. When I first entered the site here, the top story was “Mild Pandemic or Millions Dead?” Phrases like “millions dead” may grab attention, but they’re exactly the kind of sensationalism Mr. Wright’s article was warning against.

“Which common household product can cause sudden death in toddlers? Tune in at 11:00pm for this and more!”

Posted by Pamela | Report as abusive

The Hype has really been irritating me. The only positive point is that headlines seem to have temporarily stopped switching eight times a day between ’slight global recovery’ and ‘deepening global meltdown’. I was getting dizzy!

The best thing about the swine flu craze is the short-selling potential of all these stocks that will soon deflate whenever the flu fears subside or their vaccines prove impractical. This is the best list I\’ve found of these overhyped swine stocks http://bit.ly/EsQhz

Posted by Peter Erskine | Report as abusive

More recent news alludes to short comings with the detection capabilities and, reporting efficacy of the WHO and the CDC. This was in direct reference to the inefficient detection and timely dissemination of information, regarding the current emerging Swine Flu pandemic…the World Health Organization along with the CENTERS for DISEASE CONTROL & PREVENTION (CDC) has paled in comparison to a two year old Seattle, Washington based company with just 50 employees – VERATECT CORPORATION. They alerted the public to a growing number of swine flu cases, weeks before the CDC and the WHO did.

VERATECT accomplishes their daily business activities, via the use of computer algorithms, and human analysts, to monitor online and off-line sources, for hints of disease outbreaks, and worldwide civil unrest.

Perhaps the CDC, the WHO, HHS, DHS, NSA, CSIS, RCMP and, even MI5, could learn a thing or two from this “start up company from Seattle.” They could perhaps partner with them, or other such CORPORATIONS, in an effort to satisfy the needs of certain public and private institutions.

Clients of these geek computer algorithms, and human analysis, were actually forewarned of the potentially severe outbreak of Swine Flu, and much sooner than the general public was too, apparently.

This new and growing business, which others are into as well, garners its source materials from data being captured from the likes of; bloggers, on-line chatters, twitters, news media sources, and of course, government websites. There is really nothing stopping the CDC, the WHO, et. al., from using this available data to enhance the speed at which they respond to outbreaks of Swine Flu, H5N1, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) etc.

With the likes of this high tech, alerting technology, the possibilities will now be limitless. Had this method of prediction been available many years ago, the incidences of fatally injurious accidents to unsuspecting citizens, might have been minimized. In particular, the Swine Flu vaccination program of the 1970s, which was responsible for horrendous side-effects such as, paralysis and death, comes to mind. Not to mention the on-going controversy of the Polio vaccines, especially with the recent negative publicity from Nigeria, and other third world countries.

It has been stated; some of the obvious and important benefits of this intelligence gathering science, apart from possibly saving human life…will better manage the financial reporting, and insurance coverage…mitigating potential class action lawsuits due to negligence…especially important in the UNITED KINGDOM, where the government recently crafted the CORPORATE Manslaughter, and CORPORATE Homicide ACTs.

With this cutting edge…into the future knowledge, 21,000 Canadians might have had sooner awareness that they would die in 2008 from air pollution and smog…Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome?

WORLD VISION INCORPORATED pays good money for this unique style of pre emptive intelligence. It is said, that they can actually use the alerting technology to determine where contaminated drinking water might exists, on this planet.

The leader of the CDC’s international swine flu team thinks this type of technology is somewhat useful and, sensitive to emerging threats. However, Dr. Scott Dowell also thinks “it generates a lot of noise.”

On the subject of noise or sound, the CORPORATION which truly possessed the widest vision capabilities; was PANASONIC. More than two months ago now, and before any inkling of Swine Flu (A-H1N1), this company came up with the perplexing plan; repatriate the families of overseas employees, out of fears of an imminent flu pandemic.

A PANASONIC spokesperson said; employees will stay put, but families of those working in China, Asia (excluding Singapore), the Middle East, Africa, Russia and South America are to return to Japan.

So perplexing was this decision, that it triggered a reaction from WHO spokesperson, Gregory Hartl: “There’s really no reason for anyone to all of a sudden take such actions, because today is no different from yesterday.”
Hartl of the WHO said; “there is no justification for this decision, particularly from a public health perspective. There is no sense that the risk has risen, and we are definitely still in Phase 3.”

Phase 6 = Condition Pandemic.

Posted by Christopher-Peter: Maingot | Report as abusive

It’s all hype to focus attention elsewhere away from what our elected officials are doing.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

Re: Posted by Jason-May 1st, 2009 – 4:59 pm GMT – I agree with you: We all need to keep focused on what our elected OFFICALS are doing. And, perhaps equally, if not more important jason; some of the things which they have, already done.

Posted by Christopher-Peter: Maingot | Report as abusive

We must unite to Resistance to virus

Posted by china | Report as abusive

Much agreed Christopher. Much agreed.

Posted by jason | Report as abusive

The hype seems to be an effective way of distracting people from the government’s antics and also to keep our minds off the economy crisis. I don’t know for sure how big this swine flu epidemic will get but at the moment, I think it’s all hype.

Posted by Caris | Report as abusive

So today Mexico reports that the worst of the swine flu is over; and it is no worse than a regular flu. How much money was spent on this? Did Obama not asked for a billion dollars, and asked companies to give as much time as the employees asked? How much did this cost to airlines, travel agencies? How much did this cost to the Mexican and world economy?
I think the news media need to do some real soul searching. Hype sells but it will eventually backfire.

Posted by C Garza | Report as abusive

I have a consipiracy theory, this could have been made to create terror among humanity. some makers of medicine & vaccine and genius in developing diseases may have created the H1N1 for profit & commercial purpose.

Posted by Raul B Villarama Jr. | Report as abusive

Dean, do you read all these comments?
AZJ

Posted by Arlene Jacobson | Report as abusive

Note to AZJ:
Yes, I make it a point to read all comments on the blog. I like for the discussion to be largely among readers, since I’ve already had my say–and at some length.

However, when appropriate I will wade back in to the debate.

Thanks for reading!

Posted by Dean Wright | Report as abusive

Hey Raul from May 4th, 2009 – Re: I have a conspiracy theory. I can surely agree with your written expression, but only positively on one point – It is a conspiracy. And, these situations are no longer theories. YouTube this: Luke Rudkowski – ‘U.S. media doesn’t want truth’. Do the research.

Posted by Christopher-Peter: Maingot | Report as abusive

I agree with everyone else, it is hype.

Posted by Patricia | Report as abusive

Just imagine how many people caught TB or AIDS everyday by global statistics and WHO should have declared world pandemic for every known communicatable disease, you will feel much better for a curable flu.

Posted by Greene | Report as abusive