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Hyping swine flu isn't really healthy

Media outlets, particularly those on TV, display a lack of proportion in spinning the story of the disease. Terrible things may happen -- or they may not.

May 01, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

I'm huddled here under my desk, face covered in a paper mask, bottle of hand sanitizer by my side, a sharp stick at the ready in case anyone from Mexico ventures within breathing distance.

Reports about the swine flu outbreak make it pretty obvious that something really, really, really bad is happening. Unless it's not.

While most news outlets strive mightily to strike the right balance -- spreading information about a public health concern, while tamping down alarm -- others seem to have a congenital inability to tell this story with precision or proportion.

Television in particular can struggle with a story like this, when reporters and news anchors muddle along, untethered for hours in the vast space-time continuum created by the Web and cable TV.

Desperate to fill to the top of the hour and armed with little clarity -- no one can say for certain how prolonged or deadly this flu episode will be -- some newsies can't stop spinning. And conjuring a frightening reality that isn't quite real.

An on-screen headline for CNN shouts: "Bracing for the Worst." The 24-hour outlets endlessly scroll new numbers, of states and nations reporting possible cases, of schools closing, of death totals rising.

Fox News anchor Trace Gallagher might not have intended to project alarm. But he did Thursday when he scanned a map and declared that the virus is "spreading from coast to coast."

Was it really "troubling new information," as Gallagher asserted, that the young boy who died of the disease in Texas had spent hours in an indoor mall?

We have no details and no way of knowing if the child could have spread the disease to others. So why set our imaginations running overtime?

But Fox had not even close to a monopoly on swine flu blather.

I listened incredulously as CNN star Wolf Blitzer asked an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Is it time for people . . . . to stop shaking hands and to stop hugging each other?" (The doctor answered evenly that frequent hand-washing would suffice.)

Not to be outdone, his CNN colleague, Kyra Phillips, relayed a report that a couple of Marines at Twentynine Palms might have the illness. "It's pretty frightening," Phillips chirped, "if our U.S. military gets infected as well."

Not as frightening as when the voice of a major news outlet extrapolates inanely, turning a single unconfirmed report into some kind of dire harbinger.

Maybe Jill Biden forgot to put away the remote control and that's why hubby Joe, all twitchy and cable-TV-charged, practically suggested a shutdown of plane and subway travel.

Meanwhile, others used the flu news to flog their favorite cause or advance their prejudices. Bloggers and talk radio gozzleheads blame "dirty Mexicans" (or some variation) and scream for an immediate border shutdown. Never mind that not a single reputable public health official thinks that would do any good.

Fox anchor Shepard Smith hints that the flu story might be "just a distraction" (by that shifty Obama administration, we presume) from more serious issues. Another Fox host blithely repeats Internet tomfoolery that "the government knows a lot more than they are telling us."

Such overreaching seems particularly lame when one considers the straight news that needs to be reported and deftly analyzed.

On Wednesday, for example, World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan raised the infectious disease alert level to phase 5, one level short of a pandemic. Chan said "it really is all of humanity that is under threat in a pandemic."

Many news outlets reported that news a bit breathlessly, paying less attention to Chan's acknowledgment that advanced nations are much more prepared to cope with the illness than the developing world.

Also important to keep in mind: Chan and other health officials count on these alerts to spur preparedness -- planning for a possible vaccine, marshaling stocks of antiviral medications and the like.

The rest of us just need to keep our noses, and hands, clean and wait for further instructions. In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to get a handle on what we're talking about here.

A "pandemic" sounds dangerous and it can be, though the formal declaration by the World Health Organization refers to a disease's reach, not its lethality.

A pandemic is an epidemic that effects many people over a wide swath of the planet. The WHO declares a pandemic when an infectious disease impacts two or more of the organization's international regions.

The current H1N1 virus eventually could kill many people, or relatively few -- a point that many news organizations (even those I'm gigging) got to, if you stuck with their coverage long enough.

Dr. William Shaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center brought some proportionality to Fox News, for example, by reminding viewers that seasonal influenza kills an average of 36,000 Americans a year, many more than the current swine flu has killed worldwide.

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