OPINION

Flu-Coverage Fever: A Web-Borne Virus

By now, you know the best ways to protect yourself: Wash your hands, manage your stress, avoid contamination. Wearing a mask is optional, but it couldn’t hurt. However, if by chance you are exposed to an infectious swine-flu-related headline or story on cable news or the Internet, stay in your home and contact the proper authorities.

A hazmat team will be sent as soon as possible.

After nearly two weeks of coverage, I’m now convinced that the threat of a flu pandemic that may have started south of our border is much too important to leave to the likes of the round-the-clock news landscape. I come to this conclusion fully aware that news executives around the country are doing their best to refrain from the “P” word — “panic” — in what’s quickly become a consistent lead story, and that media critics more experienced and articulate than yours truly have already filed copy about the first few days of coverage.

The consensus of that analysis — which has included the Internet — seems to be that everybody is trying their best to avoid scaring their loyal viewers/readers, but the coverage has occasionally been dialed up to 11. A too-energetic anchor here, a scary graphic there, a Web site headline and pic over there. Call me ultra-cynical, but I contend that the temptation to drive viewer ratings and reader traffic to Web sites — either standalone news sites or the Web divisions of traditional media — will become too much to resist, and not even a Purell body wash will help.

The early symptoms are already showing up. As I write this on a Wednesday evening (April 29), the big headline on the widely read Drudge Report — the unofficial managing editor for many a cable news network, local TV station and radio talk show host — reads “Level 5.” It refers to the World Health Organization (WHO) raising its flu alert level to the last stage before declaring a pandemic. In the upper-left-hand corner, sufficiently “above the fold,” are 12 links designed to keep you clicking away: “World takes drastic steps to contain flu,” “Hits home in U.S.; now in 11 states,” “FARMERS RIOT,” “UK to leaflet every house,” and so on. Embedded deep in the link list is this: “WHO: Only 7 swine flu DEATHS, not 152;” a World Health Organization expert now says the original flu death toll from Mexico is incorrect. The WHO headline certainly has not been as ubiquitous as the video and pictures of people around the world donning surgical masks.

If you weren’t aware that it’s the May sweeps period for local U.S. television markets, this item would certainly hammer that home: Newsblues.com, via Orlando Sentinel TV critic Hal Boedeker, reported that the news director of the ABC affiliate in that Florida city used his Twitter account to tell his audience that he had “Breaking News! Florida Hospital confirms Orlando’s first diagnosed case of swine flu. Details on WFTV.com and on Eyewitness News at Noon.” (Did we mention it’s sweeps month?) He cited an internal email from that hospital’s chief medical officer, who later said his email was “unofficial” and taken out of context, and there were no confirmed cases in Orlando. But swabs were taken from a Mexican tourist who recently visited Walt Disney World, and they have been sent to the CDC. But test results aren’t back yet. But everybody should act like swine flu is already there. But we don’t know if it really is or not. But another station blamed the ABC station on-air for frightening citizens.

There’s nothing like competitive ratings pressure to spark clear, concise reporting, huh? Especially when the stakes involve your health.

Echoes of Another Big Story

I am currently reading Dave Cullen’s Columbine, a fascinating book that is shattering myths about another huge story that dominated the news a decade ago. Those myths — that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were Goth-wannabes, members of something called “The Trench Coat Mafia” that was targeting jocks when they went on their murderous high school rampage on April 20, 1999 — were part of a sad feedback loop involving local and national media and some “eyewitness” students.

The Internet was just starting to make its presence felt in business and media back then, so Cullen focuses most of the analysis in the chapter “Media Crime” on the reporting by local and national newspapers and TV, none of which had yet begun their major expansions to the Web. However, a familiar name shows up regarding inaccurate reports that the killers were gay:

Most significantly, the Drudge Report quoted Internet postings claiming that the Trench Coat Mafia was a gay conspiracy to kill jocks.

The online magazine Salon is also mentioned for publishing a story after the shootings about alienated youth who fantasized about hurting classmates but didn’t act on those impulses. For the most part, though, Cullen outlines the good, the bad and the ugly of traditional news organizations that tried to present a clear picture of the tragedy in its early hours.

The Columbine murders and the swine flu threat are obviously different types of stories with differing dynamics, each presenting unique challenges to journalists. Columbine was a bloody, sudden spasm; this flu threat did suddenly become a story over a weekend, but it has been slowly gathering momentum in the days after. Yet imagine if today’s Internet, with its niche broadcasting, anonymous-comment-fed energy, and sheer omnipresence had been in full roar when Klebold and Harris started taking lives.

Sure, those myths might have been dispelled from the start, but I doubt it; they probably would have been multiplied by a factor of 10. How might that have affected the way “different” students would have been treated at schools around the country? How quickly would the Web echo chamber have filled with subjective takes on gun crimes, parenting, violence in the media, and reporting suspicious activities near schools? Granted, some of that did happen in the wake of Columbine, but the need to fill Web pages and sell nearby online ad space — not to mention keeping the 24/7 media beast fed — would have been staggering.

That same danger exists if this flu does indeed reach official pandemic levels. The Web could help the fear spread faster than sneezes on a plane (forget about those nasty snakes from that awful movie.)

The Flu Coverage Prognosis

“Swine Flu Alert Level Jumps – ‘All of Humanity That Is Under Threat'” intones the above-the-fold headline on AOL.com. Clearly, this Time Warner property thinks it has the first big potential blockbuster of the summer, not 20th Century Fox and its “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” (For the record, the “all of humanity” quote does indeed come from WHO Director General Margaret Chan, who said during an April 29 press conference that “it really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.”)

Grabby headlines aside — is this a big story? Of course. WHO has never declared a Level 5. Tracking illness reports and the response of agencies and governments deserve extra coverage — thoughtful, reasoned, deliberate coverage that doesn’t rely on SEO-powered headlines, not to mention lower-third TV screen graphics that liberally use the words “panic,” “fear,” “deadly,” etc.

The Internet has many health-related Web sites, not to mention the medical sections of the largest general news sites and aggregators. They could be using this opportunity to educate and dispel some myths, too, provided the information is presented not only without sensationalism, but also in a clear, easy-to-find manner.

Yahoo, to its credit, has a “find simple flu prevention tips” link on its home page, but finding them is anything but simple. Click on that link and it leads to another set of links. Click on the very first link on that results page, and guess what? You get sent to yet another links page. By the time I actually find the flu prevention tips, they’ll be dragging me away to quarantine.

While we’re talking fear, here’s my biggest one: that the focus on Mexico as the flu’s epicenter, together with earlier links on Drudge and other Web sites that raise questions about whether the border should be closed, will soon create its own mutant strain as it merges with the immigration debate and party politics. Some lawmakers apparently need camera time, and the Web and talk radio will no doubt help them get ready for their closeups.

Once again, there’s an opportunity for the Internet and journalism to show off, to provide detailed coverage that doesn’t rely on fear mongering. It missed its chance with the financial crisis and the 2008 elections. If it can’t do the job now — on what might end up being a very important story, indeed — it could be enough to make you sick.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.


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