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.

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