Was "swine flu" coverage actually excessive?

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Nearly everyone seems to agree it was. Here's Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, for example, in an online discussion today:

Howard Kurtz: I think there's been almost no soul-searching over this. The swine flu story has now virtually vanished, from television at least, without so much as an acknowledgment that the media played a crucial role in pumping it up. It's like Emily Litella: never mind.

.... here's what I said yesterday:

I have good news to report this morning. We're not all going to die...

The tone and the volume were just out of proportion to what we knew about the outbreak. Of course it was a story that people were interested in, that journalists had to cover, that had the potential to turn into a public health crisis. But the key word is "potential."

Even as medical reporters sounded cautionary notes, the saturation coverage turned excessive, even scary. And then, well, the thing fizzled...

I can't tell you how many people have complained to me about what they see as the media's wild overreaction on swine flu. Whatever short-term bump you might get in the ratings is outweighed by a loss of confidence among news consumers, and there's no vaccine for that.

But just because the swine flu didn't kill half the country doesn't mean the coverage was excessive.

Let's say a virus exists, and the medical and scientific communities agree with absolute certainty that the virus will wipe out half the population if people behave as they typically do ... but that it could also be stopped if people took some basic precautions, like washing their hands and staying home if they are sick, so as not to infect their schools and offices. And let's say the news media reported all of that. And, given the potential severity of the situation, they reported it a lot. And in response, people would wash their hands a little more often than usual, and stay home from work and school if they felt sick.

The result would be that, despite all the media coverage suggesting we could all die, nothing much would seem to happen.

And that would be exactly how you would want it to play out.

The fact that half the country didn't end up dead wouldn't mean that the media hadn't done it's job. It would mean that the media had done its job very well - it had made the public aware of vital information in time for the public to act upon that information.

Is that what happened? I don't know. But Kurtz, and many others, aren't even considering the question of what would have happened had the media downplayed the story, or what could have happened.

They're just concluding that, because millions of people aren't dead, the media did something wrong.

That's an odd way to assess things, to say the least.

There is no shortage of things the media obsess over that they shouldn't. Lipstick-on-a-pig political "controversies," for example. Shark attacks. Crimes involving missing (rich, white, cute) children. Things that have virtually no potential to significantly affect anyone other than the very few people directly involved. But we shouldn't be so quick to assume H1N1 was one of them.

(Kurtz, if memory serves, has in the past criticized wall-to-wall media coverage of things like shark attacks and runaway brides.)

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