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:
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.
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.
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:
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?:
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.
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.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'.
"Better to be safe than sorry," Mrs Scott said.
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?I wouldn't read the article if I were you. Just skimming it made me feel like I had contracted swine flu.
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!
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.