Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Still got a wee swine cough, thanks for asking

The Herald editorial today is quite interestingly self-aware. Discussing accusations by their own readers - I'm not mentioned by name but they obviously have EtH in the forefront of their minds - that the massive media coverage amounts to scaremongering, they admit that it is a reasonable question:
The New Zealand Herald does not speak for any media but itself. We take care to use terms that accurately represent the degree of risk that public health professionals assess. Words such as "probable", "suspected", "potential" are vital qualifiers to all cases of interest in New Zealand. Even so, comprehensive coverage of the threat, running to several pages of the paper over consecutive days, can make the emergency appear worse than it yet may be.
Their first defence, hinted at in the quote above, is that, while there was a lot of coverage, it wasn't sensationalised; rather, it was a responsible, careful approach to an issue of considerable gravity. Their second defence is in the next paragraph:

But if that is scaremongering, it is singularly ineffective. There is no discernible panic in the community over this potential "pandemic", as the WHO calls these outbreaks. Similarly, there was no panic over Sars, bird flu or the others; just a sensible warning about travel in infected regions and precautions such as stocking antidote medicines as soon as they could be developed.

Far from panic, the popular response to these scares may be becoming too complacent. The WHO, public health agencies and the media may be accused of crying "wolf" so often that one day preventable deaths occur because precautions are ignored. But that seems unlikely. When health authorities ring these alarms they have succeeded in ensuring that quarantine measures are taken and adequate stocks of medicine and other needs are quickly provided. That might not happen if announcements of outbreaks of new and deadly diseases were reported as briefly and quietly as critics seem to think they deserve.

In other words, there needs to be more reporting on these issues because people do not take these outbreaks seriously enough. Whether this argument can be easily generalised - there needs to be so much reporting on, I don't know, celebrity ballroom dancing, because we don't take it seriously enough - is not covered in this editorial. But it probably doesn't surprise you to discover that I think both arguments are complete bollocks.

Regarding sensationalism - where do I start? I've already talked about the scary graphics, not to mention the sheer volume of coverage. I particularly wanted to mention two articles on the 'Flu Alert' page of yesterday's paper. The first, "Shoppers steer clear of pork products", by Lincoln Tan, is basically a big fat lie:
Health experts may have confirmed that swine flu viruses cannot be transmitted by eating pork or pork products, but some Asian supermarket shoppers [wait, is that shoppers at Asian supermarkets or Asians who shop at supermarkets?] remain concerned that Chinese pork luncheon meat sold here could still spread the virus.
Oh man, you would have to be quite stupid to think that eating Chinese pork would give you a Mexican flu ("the virus"). Oh, hang on:

Major Chinese meat processor China Yurun Food Group last week recalled and destroyed 100 boxes of luncheon meat, made from unspecified minced meat from a Chinese slaughterhouse, China's National Business Daily reported.

The meat was found to be contaminated with clenbuterol, a drug given to people to treat asthma and also commonly used to cut body fat, and the recall was unrelated to swine flu.

Oh, so this story actually has nothing to do with swine flu at all. Be honest, Lincoln: this was just a story you were writing anyway, and then swine flu 'happened'. But at least you're not spreading hysteria, right?:
Grocery shopper Casey Scott said she knew the swine flu outbreak did not originate from China, but she was still being cautious and avoiding pork products from the country.

"Better to be safe than sorry," Mrs Scott said.
So, what I am guessing happened here is that Mr Tan went to a supermarket, walked to the meat aisle and asked people about pork and swine flu. Sweet - I would like to ask all my readers not to think of an orange right now. What a ridiculous 'article'.

As for the other article, "Mexican student fears 'freak' reaction when he returns to NZ", here's how I envision its genesis:
Reporter Vaimoana Tapaleao: Oh man, oh man, crap. I need to write a swine flu article and the deadline is an hour away. What the hell am I going to write about?

Person at next desk (let's call them Garth): Well, I have a Mexican student who is going to be boarding with me. You could talk to them...

Vaimoana: Hey, swine flu is from Mexico! Cha-ching!
I wouldn't read the article if I were you. Just skimming it made me feel like I had contracted swine flu.

But I feel like the more serious issue is the editorial's second claim, that massive coverage is justified because there is too little public concern, as there was for SARS, West Nile virus, et cetera et cetera ad nauseam. Maybe there is little public concern because there is very little that most people can actually do about it. But maybe, just maybe, the same "crying 'wolf'" effect that the editorial frets about is caused by the massive coverage of these events when nothing ever comes of them. One can only stand so many reminders of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic every time there's an outbreak of anything. Whoever wrote this editorial was either being rather foolish or rather disingenuous.

Also, a Herald graphic made it look like a woman had sex with a chicken and gave birth to a pig.


  1. The editorial makes a couple of interesting claims - on the one hand there is no panic, therefore if the media is scaremongering it isn't working.

    And on the other hand, if the media didn't make people concerned, we wouldn't follow quarantine measures etc. So the media's role is basically to scaremonger... to some degree.

    The upshot is that the media can cover it in as sensational a manner as they like, so long as people have enough common sense not to panic. So three cases of the flu will justify 11 pages of coverage every day, until an angry mob ram-raids a Life Pharmacy in search of Tamiflu.

    Of course this doesn't explain why the Herald needs to run stories about the "survivors", minute-by-minute updates of breaking false alarms or use Influenza A numbers in headlines because they're bigger than swine flu numbers.

    These all being much more effective ways of conveying the seriousness of isolating the virus than, say, a front page article and regular follow ups explaining the seriousness of isolating the virus. Perhaps with some practical hygiene tips and a discount coupon for Dettol hand wipes.

    The impression I get of the coverage is that it's opportunistic, lazy, aimed at selling papers, and virtually completely un-self-aware. The editorial is a post-hoc rationalisation, not a strategic policy.

  2. 'Aimed at selling papers'

    Well who would have thought?!

    Did you know that the Herald, and every other private media corporation, needs to sell its product in order to survive?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Oops I typed the wrong web address. Here's something that sums up the problems news organisations face:

    BTW I work at the Herald. I enjoy the blog muchly.

  5. Last nights UK screening of The Daily Show with John Stewart put a good spin on things last night as well. Probably find it on Youtube.

  6. > In other words, there needs to be more reporting on these issues because people do not take these outbreaks seriously enough.

    I don't think the Herald was calling for more reporting - it was merely saying that no reporting would be

    > Celebrity ballroom dancing

    False range. No one is suggesting that a potential pandemic and celeb tat are one and the same, or can be measured against each other - that's your rejoinder and it doesn't work.

    On the whole the editorial was fine. It's a shame some of the coverage was awful.

    > Scary graphics.

    I see no skulls and crossbones, no hazmat icons etc. What do you suggest instead? Seriously, you rip the newspaper apart but very often do not say what would be better. What WOULD be better?

  7. sorry, press send before I finished my first point...

    ... would be irresponsible not to report. If the WHO is screaming 'possible world-wide crisis', which it is, the media must do its job and report with that mind.

  8. I think there has been some valid reporting but there has also been some complete tosh. The lincoln Tan story that James points to is a case in point. It takes a completely irrelevant story and tries to shoehorn it into the swine flu debate – it’s laughably bad.

    I would also single out “Mexican student in NZ refused Tamiflu” as being in the same category.

    I would like to know any country (apart from the Netherlands) where you could walk into a doctors surgery and say, “I am not suffering any illness, but would like XYZ drug, just in case”. In fact I will try an experiment. Based on the fact that such dire reporting will probably send me postal in the long run, I will visit my doctor tomorrow and ask for a selection of their finest anti-psychotic meds “just in case”.

    In fact the author of the story (Edward Gay) seems to be quite put out that the Mexican student wasn’t just handed Tamiflu upon request. The story should read, “Doctor does his job. Assesses patient as mildly panicky, tells him not to worry and bugger off”.

  9. By the way - I have renamed the pandemic "Hogwash Fever" - you heard it here first folks.

  10. My version is: Winnie the Poo Flu.

    Or Poo Flu, for short.

  11. Which I realise makes no sense, but just sounds good. Further to which...


    the herald has been relativly restrained compared to the dom post, and it seems to be settling down now that the nz victims aren't following the script and dying

    still, the thing about "the boy who cried wolf" is that there eventually was a wolf.

  13. hey james sounds like you do have swine flu mate. a whole lot of porkies this is!