Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Swine Flu and Press Responsibility

We're all going to die! That's the verdict the British press has reached. The news some 150 people in Mexico have died of swine flu - a relative of the H5N1 bird flu that exercised the media a year or so ago - and its spread to North America and Europe has sent newsrooms around the country into a tizzy. And not a few people too. According to the Daily Mail, there has been a surge in sales of Tamiflu as people panic buy up available stocks. Unfortunately swine flu is the new kid on the viral block and it will take some time before custom-made treatments are available, by which time either the pandemic has swept through and/or the media are whipping the public up into a frenzy about something else.

The situation with swine flu
is potentially serious. Some commentary doing the rounds on the blogs and forums draw attention to the 2,000 or so a day who succumb to Malaria, which hardly ever draws media notice outside of special features. But to use this fact to dismiss swine flu as just a media driven panic is mistaken. Malaria is hemmed in by climate: swine flu is not. Given its virulence and despite the relatively slight number of fatalities it is only right and proper the authorities are taking the relevant precautions. In this case it is much better to be safe than sorry, especially as the current spread has caused the World Health Organisation to raise its alert level to four, the level of sustained human-to-human transmission.

Nevertheless there is a stirring of a panic and the British media are doing their damnedest to encourage it, purely for reasons of market share and profit. In newsrooms cut to the bone by capricious and unaccountable media bosses swine flu is mana from heaven. Journalists only need sign up to the relevant government and medical agency feeds and spin what's coming out of them. The result is dramatic and sexy headlines and a very short term rise in circulation at little or no extra cost to the papers themselves.

This comes at the price of a sober analysis of the facts. But far worse is the abdication of social responsibility, of which the British press has a long and inglorious history. The most infamous probably remains
News of the World's campaign of naming and shaming convicted paedophiles. This saw several innocent people attacked by vigilantes because their names happened to be the same or similar to those published by Murdoch's odious rag. In one case even a paediatrician's premises were vandalised by a mob whipped up by NOTW.

Its reporting of swine flu certainly falls into this category. Sensationalist reporting is likely to see tamiflu wiped off Britain's shelves and encourage an influx of needlessly worried people into doctors' surgeries - wasting time and resources already rationed thanks to the marketisation imposed on the NHS by the government. But whatever happens the media barons will wash their hands of the consequences.


Unfortunately this kind of irresponsible reportage is hardwired into all media organisations to one degree or another. As private enterprises they have no choice but to compete for advertising revenue and readership/audiences - otherwise they will go under. In theory this competition should drive up standards (how many times have we heard that mantra?). But in reality it generates structural pressures to dumb down and sensationalise. To get away from this the media's big institutions need completely restructuring, and the starting point should be taking them out of private ownership.

19 comments:

Dangger said...

You have to take into account one thing. Health care in Mexico is extremely deficient. That is why people are dying there, so one cannot grasp the reality of the situation until it gets to a more "decent" system.

An American reporter asked this to the secretary of health in Mexico "Why are people dying of swine flu here in Mexico and not in USA?"

The obvious response is what the BBC reporter mentioned, something like "Doctors are not in the hospitals they don't care about the people and it is all very confusing."

What the secretary of health said is "we don't know why people are dying here." But to tell you the truth, it is more than obvious for Mexicans.

said...

There's an interesting post her at Indymedia on the origins of the pandemic.

Badger said...

There is however a counter argument to yours - namely that despite the low possibility of their being a lethal pandemic in Europe that the very certainty that such a thing WILL one day happen should alert us to take personal responsibility IN CASE it does happen now.

Your "moral panic" argument is the easiest academic path of least resistance ....the refuge of the lazy fearful and unoriginal academic perhaps:

see: http://bentsocietyblog.blogspot.com/2009/04/do-be-concerened-aboit-flying-pig-flu.html

These guys look at statisitical significance and morality in a new way.

What think you of their arguments?

Anton Vowl said...

That front page of the Express is priceless. They really couldn't care less about frightening people, could they? Or rather: they could, and they enjoy it.

Phil BC said...

Badger, what make you of this?

"The situation with swine flu is potentially serious. Some commentary doing the rounds on the blogs and forums draw attention to the 2,000 or so a day who succumb to Malaria, which hardly ever draws media notice outside of special features. But to use this fact to dismiss swine flu as just a media driven panic is mistaken. Malaria is hemmed in by climate: swine flu is not. Given its virulence and despite the relatively slight number of fatalities it is only right and proper the authorities are taking the relevant precautions. In this case it is much better to be safe than sorry, especially as the current spread has caused the World Health Organisation to raise its alert level to four, the level of sustained human-to-human transmission."

Source - about a screen and a half above this comment.

tim f said...

I like the juxtaposition of this post and the picture beneath it.

Badger said...

Phil BC

And this...a bit below?

"Nevertheless there is a stirring of a panic and the British media are doing their damnedest to encourage it, purely for reasons of market share and profit. In newsrooms cut to the bone by capricious and unaccountable media bosses swine flu is mana from heaven. Journalists only need sign up to the relevant government and medical agency feeds and spin what's coming out of them. The result is dramatic and sexy headlines and a very short term rise in circulation at little or no extra cost to the papers themselves."

Academic critical cake and eat it comes to mind :-)

Phil BC said...

I don't think so at all, Badger. There's a balance to be struck. This is neither a case of 'were all going to die' - a sentiment the Express and the Mail like to foment (what was one of those publication's headlines yesterday - something about a projected 120 million deaths?) Nor is it a pure media invention. The problem lies in between these extremes.

The proportionate and correct response is currently being taken by the authorities, IMO. But the approach of the tabloid press is completely disproportionate - unless you think headlines like the one featured atop this post is a useful and measured response to public health.

Badger said...

Phil BC

No I don't think much of what the Express of Daily Mail ever have to say is measured or just or fair.

That said Phil the "no need for concern" "...do as we say and leave it to us...experts " official advice is also misleading because in the "worst case scenario" - which admittadly is not probable ...yet remains significantly possible (perhaps as likely as somewhere betwen 300-1 and 40-1 against) is that WE ARE ALL DOOMED unless we look after ourselves by making sure we are provided for when the food runs out (i.e stock up NOW...or better still you should have done it a year ago when we had avian flu to worry about).

BUT you are not supposed to say that. And academics get shot down for saying it...so entrenched are they in the concept of "fear of crime being worse than crime" and the "moral panic" theme. History has taught us that s pandemic has the capacity to wreck society as we know it. History has time on its side. It's only a matter of time.

Renegade Eye said...

I can't wait to read Spiked Online about this subject.

I agree with the direction of the post.

skidmarx said...

You have to take into account one thing. Health care in the US is extremely patchy. Well off Anglo tourists will probably do alright, but illegal Mexican immigrants may continue to spread it.

News that swine flu has reached Israel reminds me that a Jewish friend worked on a pig farm there once.

bobbins said...

I'm quite enjoying all this hooha about our imminent snotty deaths, it sure beats the last doom & gloom story - something about slowly starving to death on the dole queue, wasn't it?

manny paul said...

The virus is likely to become less virulent the faster it is transmitted, writes Ian Sample, but in the short term the more people....
Latest developments on swine flu worldwide

Benjamin Solah said...

Excellent post. All my friends seem to be going on and on about how Swine Flu is everywhere in the media. You can't escape it.

SocialistWorker.org has a good article in it, which talks about the mass pig farms that breed disease.

harpymarx said...

Benjamin, that is indeed a good article in SocialistWorker.org.

Oh, and I was distracted by the cute little doggie ("victims of the recession") on the front of the Express next to the screaming headlines....

Graham said...

>In one case even a paediatrician's premises were vandalised by a mob whipped up by NOTW.

Except this never happened. The sign on the paediatrician's offices was semi-defaced by someone writing the phrase "paedo" nearby. This came to light in an interview with the actual paediatrician. No mob, no torches, no pitchforks.

TICQueen said...

People need to be properly informed about Swine Flu, otherwise panic can be a problem

You can get a complete Swine Flu guide at http://www.swineflurecommendations.com

Chiang Mai said...

H1N1 (referred to as “swine flu” early on) is a new influenza virus causing illness in people. Symptoms of swine flu are similar to those caused by other influenza viruses. Health authorities across the globe are taking steps to try to stem the spread of swine flu after outbreaks in Mexico and the United States. The World Health Organization has called it a "public health emergency of international concern."

James said...

In a drive to inoculate people against swine flu before winter, many European governments say they will fast-track the testing of a new flu vaccine, arousing concern among some experts about safety issues and proper vaccine doses.

The European Medicines Agency, the EU's top drug regulatory body, is accelerating the approval process for swine flu vaccine, and countries such as Britain, Greece, France and Sweden say they'll start using the vaccine after it's greenlighted — possibly within weeks.