Media Mayhem: Much a-flu about something
Our media columnist ponders why coverage of the swine flu outbreak may be killing us.
Mon, Nov 02, 2009 at 06:02 AM
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Let’s pretend your brain is an advanced computer. It’s designed to process information efficiently -- unless the inputs wildly contradict each other. Too many contradictions will cause the computer to malfunction.
As an experiment, let’s put that logic machine of yours in front a TV. At the same time, we’ll tune the radio to a broadcast-bloviation station that advertises itself as a “news” source.
Now, let’s see what happens when you suck up information on, say, the swine flu. Incoming data:
* Hordes of illegal immigrants “sneaked” swine flu across the border, creating a threat -- possibly on purpose -- that might overwhelm the American way of life.
* The medical establishment way overstated the case that swine flu would grow into a pandemic.
* The medical establishment didn’t move fast enough to protect us from “the swine flu virus ... spreading at an alarming rate.”
* Refusing a swine flu vaccine protects your “liberty and freedom” because “this whole swine flu thing is political.”
* Old people are being denied the vaccine in an effort to kill them -- just as Sarah Palin warned us the health insurance reform “death panels” would do.
* The swine flu vaccine may have been “developed to kill people.”
* It’s an outrage that there’s a vaccine shortage — and a surefire sign of the shortcomings of “government run healthcare.”
Are you dizzy yet? At what point, did your brain’s operating system freeze up? At what point, did it actually explode?
OK. That’s kind of a gruesome metaphor. Maybe thinking about swine-flu news coverage as a pendulum would be less sordid.
Stories like the spread of swine flu and efforts to combat it do follow a certain sing-song pattern: People contract the disease; medical professionals combat it. Public health warnings are issued; people are told not to panic. Researchers move haltingly toward prevention and treatment; they make mistakes, run into obstacles and struggle to overcome them. Such is the nature of science, medicine and the race to protect the public.
One medium of the news media has captured that dialectic pretty accurately. In case you forgot about that medium, it’s called “print.”
I searched for articles on swine flu last week in the nation’s magazines and newspapers. I found a lot of good ones, particularly in national publications -- stories that didn’t sugarcoat the tough calls, hurdles and mistakes of public officials, but that didn’t take cheap shots either.
Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today all strained to capture the story’s complexity. Even a guest columnist for the Wall Street Journal op-ed section -- which seldom misses an opportunity to blame original sin on President Obama -- struck a fair balance on the issue du jour: Why has the vaccine’s availability been so slow?
"The Obama team deserves credit for ordering vaccines early last spring when H1N1 first emerged. They contracted properly for the shots and negotiated a fair price. But passing all the blame for our current vaccine shortage onto manufacturers is unfair. The administration needs to take responsibility for improving our current system."
In truth, telling the story about swine flu may be nearly as difficult as combating the virus. Sometimes, it seems we’re all overreacting. At other times, it seems we’re not doing enough. But such nuance is lost on the dominant popular media of the day. Cable has a way of exaggerating the swing of the pendulum.
It’s not always a liberal-versus-conservative thing either. Swine flu is one of those stories where left-wing conspiracy theories intersect with right-wing paranoia. Witness libertarian/liberal talk-show host Bill Maher, who fancies himself a big advocate of science over ideology. On his own show last month, Maher was schooled by Bill Frist, a medical doctor and former Republican senator, over Maher’s knee-jerk Tweet: “If u get a swine flu shot ur an idiot.”
The news media is more predictable than Bill Maher. CNN, in its usual fashion, has offered balance but at the same time sells its stories with sensationalism. One of best TV pieces I’ve seen on the issue was a shamelessly incestuous round of media criticism last spring featuring an interview of two network medical reporters and a former CNN reporter who criticized his old employer thoughtfully.
“The media have an economic interest in promoting this fear,” said Mark Feldstein, the former reporter. “If you look at cable news numbers, they’re basically very steady until there’s a crisis and then it jumps.” And on cable, Feldstein noted, it’s not the reporting alone that matters -- it’s also the hype surrounding it.
If the cable medium accentuates the drama of the pendulum swing, however, ideology pushes that pendulum even further. On Fox, for example, useful information -- sensational or not -- often is crowded out by truly bizarre conspiracy theories designed to demonize liberals.
Sad to say, that oscillation between “the government’s doing too much” and “the government’s not protecting us enough” is only reinforced by other powerful, emerging media. Millions of Americans have been informed about this relatively non-ideological issue by listening to Rush Limbaugh in the car in the afternoon urging them not to get a vaccination as a form of political protest, and then to Sean Hannity on TV in the evening telling them the government was trying to kill old people by not offering them the vaccine.
Absent are the relevant facts. Things like: somewhere around 100 of the 5,000 confirmed deaths worldwide so far have been in the United States; the virus mainly hits young people; and the vaccine appears to be highly effective because the virus isn’t mutating quickly.
Ah, well. Perhaps, the media pendulum itself is oscillating. Not too long ago, we could depend on newspapers to give us reasonable accurate information. Now, the power has swung over to the ideological voices of cable and radio. Perhaps, it’ll swing back to a responsible, thoughtful medium, like -- um, yikes -- the Internet!
Journalist Ken Edelstein writes the Media Mayhem column for the Mother Nature Network. From various coffee shops in Atlanta, he publishes an environmental news site at MyGreenATL.com.
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