After years of research, I think I’ve found the ideal story for 24-hour cable news and for news websites:



School Children, Cute Animals, Lindsay Lohan Said to Be at Risk

This, as they say in the business, would be a story with legs. It’s good for days’ worth of side stories: Could it happen here? What can you do to protect your family against attacks by shark-bitten pirates carrying the swine flu virus? What is the government doing to protect us? What do the victims have to say, in their own words? Are they searching for answers, and looking to put their lives back together? What’s Deepak Chopra’s take on all this? Dr. Phil? Judge Judy? What politician or foreign nation can we blame this on? And finally, have we, as a people, lost our innocence? Only time will tell… 

Okay, give me a minute to catch my breath, I’m a bit exhausted after all those TV clichés.

The now-waning uproar over the swine flu is a textbook example of a serious story, magnified beyond reason in order to retain an audience by frightening it. Hard confirmations of swine flu deaths worldwide are still only in the double digits, with some health experts now saying we’re doing more harm than good by hyping the threat. But swine flu -- now re-branded as the H1N1 virus -- is a convenient distraction for a news media that often cashes in on scary stories, and for a consuming public that not only puts up with it, but revels in it.

National web sites and broadcasters aren’t the end of it: Local TV news directors thanked their lucky stars that the swine flu threat was there to help them usher in sweeps month. Three times a year, in February, May, and November, local TV news organizations pull out all the stops in a ratings beauty contest that sets ratings, and therefore ad sales rates and income for the entire local TV industry. Look closely, and you’ll see the entire complexion of local TV news change during those three months, and sensational, scary stories get shoved front-and-center even more quickly.

Amidst the fear, the focus on public health is nonetheless welcome. And the death toll, while relatively small, is still a tragedy for those touched by it. Overreaction, while not ideal, is probably a whole lot better than underreaction when it comes to global public health risks. But we overdo this, over and over again.

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Does the name Andrew Speaker ring a bell? It didn’t for me, either, until I read a brief news story last week about Mr. Speaker’s lawsuit. Just two years ago, Speaker was briefly a household name as the Typhoid Mary of the 21st century. Diagnosed with a controllable, low-threat form of tuberculosis, Speaker was cleared to board a plane for Europe to attend his own wedding. While in Europe, doctors changed their diagnosis to a more dangerous and drug-resistant strain of TB. Barred from flying back to the U.S., Speaker hopped a plane for Canada, where travel restrictions were more lax. We went crazy. Then we lived. And forgot. Speaker is now suing the CDC for disclosing private health information.

While we go into a tizzy over swine flu, or TB, or for that matter, Susan Boyle, what more serious and long-term threats go under- or un-covered? The obvious current answer would be the world economy, still perilously weak but not as sexy as Diseases Gone Wild. Another would be Pakistan, with a frail government and an increasingly thin margin separating a nuclear weapons cache and the Taliban.

Somewhere far behind these more obvious stories are many with environmental overtones and stunningly huge stakes: Despite a hopeful turnabout by the new U.S. administration, the world is stumbling toward a crucial summitat year’s end that could shape the way the world addresses climate change. Or doesn’t. And should we act too slowly to stop sea level rise, the land formerly known as East Pakistan could be one of the first places inundated. You want scary? Try the 150 million people of Bangladesh, desperately poor and a potentially easy mark for Islamic terror, with their cities and farmland under salt water.

But sometimes even when the news media embraces environmental stories, it’s through the funhouse mirror of fear-mongering. Shark-attack media frenzies are the poster child for this breed of stories.

George Burgess of the University of Florida maintains the International Shark Attack File. Collecting and analyzing worldwide data on reported shark incidents, Burgess confirmed 54 unprovoked shark attacks on humans last year, resulting in four deaths -- only one in the U.S. In other words, sharks don’t kill humans very often at all. A few years ago, Burgess calculated that falling coconuts pose a bigger risk for beachgoers.

I had a lot of fun last year writing a piece for putting the shark threat into perspective. Over a 20-year period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, half as many Americans were killed by sharks as were killed when they toppled a vending machine after shaking it to dislodge a soda can, or their change. And domestic shark-attack deaths run about 1% of the annual toll of Americans claimed by deer, who when they’re not getting frozen in our headlights are particularly adept at coming through our windshields. But deadly deer won’t make a sexy news story for the same reason that Deer wouldn’t have the same box office draw that Jaws still does 33 years after its release.

Shark-attack deaths have also been falling in recent years. There’s no certainty as to why, but it could have something to do with the fact that we’re better at killing sharks than they are at killing us. By a factor of millions. Through direct and incidental catch, and particularly for a lethal delicacy called shark fin soup, we’re killing as many as 100 million sharks annually by some estimates. (Full Disclosure: In June, I’m going to work for the Pew Environment Group, and reversing the threat to sharks is a major campaign area for them.)

This kind of phony hype has an additional backlash on the environmental front: It makes it easier for climate change skeptics to ignore the growing mountain of peer-reviewed science on a very real threat and paint it as still another cry-wolf story. I suspect that every living human being on the planet has a better chance of being bitten on the butt by the consequences of bad journalism than by a shark.

News executives will raise the defense that they’re just giving the public what they want. The sad part is that in many cases they’re right. But those same news executives have a hard time grasping the fact that informing the public is a higher responsibility than amusing the public. Since they’re rarely amusing, our most staggering environmental challenges are getting ignored.


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)