Are journalists class clowns on swine flu coverage?

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One of the harshest criticisms about coverage of the swine flu comes today from a journalist. Stacey Woelfel, the chair of the Radio Television News Directors Association, calls journalists “class clowns” for their coverage.

Now, let me get it on the record here that I think there is some news value to this story. Any time there is a communicable disease on the loose that can make the sufferer uncomfortable for a time, it’s worth a report or two. Since death is rare (there’s only been one in the entire United States so far), it’s not like this is as serious as a major foodborne illness like Hepatitis A. Remember the outbreak in Pennsylvania in 2003 when a Chi Chi’s served some bad green onions. Six hundred fifty people got sick and four people died–all from one bad batch of green onions in one city. Compare that to the 226 cases and 1 death we have as I write this. The green onion/hepatitis story was a big one about a threat than anyone could face in the grocery store or restaurant. The swine flu story just isn’t. Note this sentence from the CDC website on the swine flu: “It is expected that most people will recover without needing medical care.” That’s right. If you get swine flu, you probably don’t even have to go to the doctor to get it looked at. It’s a virus. It has to run its course. Only those in special at-risk categories even need to worry about it. So why all the coverage?

Why all the coverage? It could be, perhaps, because the characteristics of the flu that Woelfel describes as fact, have only appeared to be fact in the last day or so, and that quite often coverage of the flu involved relaying the comments of the experts who were trying to figure out what was going on.

While Woelfel says “the swine flu story just isn’t,” no responsible journalist could make that declaration a week ago when the nature of the strain hadn’t even been determined yet. It was only Tuesday that officials announced, for example, the flu is not as bad as first thought. So saying the story was worth only one or two mentions stretches credibility somewhat.

Woelfel says death is rare. Last week, the people who were telling us the flu story is not a story because 36,000 people die from the flu each year, this week are saying it’s not a story because death is rare. You can’t have it both ways.

To be clear, there’s been some really terrible coverage. But critics are being sweeping in their condemnation by not naming specific journalists or news organizations they allege are being unethical in their coverage, painting all journalists with a broad brush. Most ethical journalists — and that’s the majority — have done nothing more than what good journalists do: tell you what is known and what isn’t.

On National Public Radio’s Morning Edition on Tuesday, Gary Schwitzer, the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communications professor who writes the Health News Blog (and who called my attention to the RTNDA article via his blog), said “When you start fear mongering in all of your messages on air and on your Web site, I don’t think we’re serving the public in the best way.” No argument there.

The story on NPR also criticized CNN reporter John Roberts, for asking the question:

“Is this the killer virus that we’ve all been hearing about. Is it just a threat? Is it like 1986 when we had a small outbreak, or is it like 1918 when 20 million people died worldwide?”

With the benefit of a week since the story broke, that might be low-hanging fruit for media critics, but it ignores an important point: There’s nothing wrong with asking a question if the answer to it is something we want — if not, need — to know. What offended sensibilities was any following speculation that pretended to have an answer different than the one the experts were offering.

While I give CNN a pass on the question, it’s hard to argue with criticism of the network. When I asked him about what TV outlets he considered “class clowns” Schwitzer cited CNN’s “Bracing For the Worst” and “Outbreak of Fear” graphics. Good examples.

But when you ask critics who level allegations on an entire industry for specifics — in this case the media — they almost always cite CNN or Fox or a major TV network. The problem with that, as I mentioned yesterday, is that there’s much more to journalism than CNN or Fox or a major TV network, a fact that usually surprises people who work at CNN, Fox, or a major TV network.

“If only RTNDA and its chairman and its website and its terrific code of ethics seemed to make any difference with its members!” Schwitzer wrote on his blog post today. He comes by his expertise honestly, he once headed CNN’s medical unit.

But he hasn’t watched any of the coverage with which he disagrees, he confirmed for me in an e-mail this afternoon. “I still haven’t watched one minute of TV coverage. All the examples I gave you were things I read about from newspaper TV columnists across the country like Howard Kurtz, James Rainey, David Zurawik, Al Tompkins and others. I have no reason to question the accuracy of their accounts of the specific instances they’ve written about.”

It’s a pity all of them have chosen to ignore some of the solid reporting on the story.

(Photo: Getty Images)

update 9:13 p.m. – The RTNDA chair who said TV reporters are “class clowns” and who said the flu story is a story that isn’t, is news director of KOMU TV in Columbia, Missouri. Let’s check and see what the top story on the station’s Web site is this evening:

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  • I think what is different about this is that it can be spread across the planet in a very short time. There may be some lessons that can prepare us for a more serious strain of the flue. Locally they is hurting the pork industry and that is a shame.

  • Al

    While this certainly should have been taken seriously from the start, I commented last week that the coverage was way too much. I think the response from the health community was outstanding and appropriate in scope. The media coverage, MPR included, was not. In the early days there were multiple extended interviews, hour long programs, and the majority of time in the half-hourly updates devoted to the story. The quality of the stories on MPR was good. It was the amount that was excessive. I would love for someone to go back over your coverage and figure out what percentage of time was devoted to this flu on MPR. It takes a lot to make me turn off MPR but it certainly happened a few days last week.

  • Bob Collins

    So is your interpretation that the coverage being too excessive was that it was on too much or that it wasn’t telling you anything you didn’t already know? That it wasn’t telling you anything new?

  • bob

    I seem to recall that early last week, it was beginning to be surmised that the North American Flu was not going to wipe out hundreds, let alone thousands or millions of people. But you wouldn’t know it from the unrelenting media hysteria.

    Gotta agree with Al that MPR/NPR had too much coverage, going over very plowed ground. I, too, found myself wishing that you folks would move on.

  • Al

    It was repitition of the same information over and over again. And in some cases, even if the story was from a different angle I was sick of the entire topic after listening to 10 other angles I had heard that day.

  • Bob Collins

    But, again, when you say “media hysteria,” who exactly are you talking about. And what do you mean by “hysteria.” I think, as I said, that references to the media are inexact.

    I was driving from Mass to Minn. last week — I’d stocked up on Car Talk podcasts — and one of the few things I heard last week was Lorna Benson’s discussion with Tom Crann on, I think, Tuesday.

    As I said yesterday. It was magnificent. It wasn’t emotional, or panicky. It did what reporters are supposed to do.

    Here. Listen for yourself.

    Now, under the one-size-fits-all method of media criticism, Lorna is a “class clown,” and under Schwitzer’s assertion (that RTNDA members don’t pay attention to the code of ethics etc.), she is unethical.

    I think both of those points are wildly off the mark.

    That’s my point.

    Specificity matters.

    Oh, to answer Al’s question, on ATC that day — at least the portion that MPR is responsible for — two of the five stories were about swine flu. Midmorning did one hour on it. Midday didn’t touch it.

    Morning Edition (local) did 8 stories that day and only one was related to the swine flu (the story of how pork producers weren’t happy)

    There were 15 pieces produced by NPR that morning, 6 of which were swine-flu related.

    And, yes, I do believe that the on-off button is a powerful and underused tool for regulating one’s information overload.

  • Thank you Bob for writing this. It troubles me that a high-profile media professor would base his criticisms off of newspaper articles, and admits not watching any television coverage. Not one minute? Seriously? I appreciate the work that Gary Schwitzer has done in drawing attention to poor medical coverage. But I’m really shocked that someone who has made his life’s work to discuss medical journalism hasn’t been inspired to turn on the television during any of this H1N1 coverage.

  • MR

    NPR did a fantastic piece today about how the natural cycle of discovering an outbreak can be misleading about the severity of a disease. That piece is here: “Deaths In Early Virus Outbreaks Can Be Misleading”

    The disease will always look bad when the story breaks, so it’s natural that there will be some amount of overblown coverage and fearmongering (like CNN). From what I saw, I felt that the local news here did quite a good job of passing on key information with a good amount of concern, but not starting the wild speculation and fearmongering. I think it helped that most officials were on the same page and making the same recommendations, and that there were so many people made available who were actual experts on this sort of thing.

  • Al

    I want you know that the MPR/NPR coverage that I listened to was informative and engaging, showing the quality I come to expect from MPR & NPR.

    The segments you listed sound about right for the day you are referring to – a little much but not terribly overwhelming. But then the next day…

  • Paul

    I think people are forgetting one very important factor, the time line. We’re only talking about two weeks here. In terms of news cycles that’s an eternity, but in terms of a world wide pandemic that’s lightning speed. In less than a week an new virus with unknown properties and mortality rates literally spread around the entire planet and has probably infected millions of people.

    Sure it thus far looks like a mild virus, but geeze it takes time to figure that out, look how long it took to figure out what was going on with HIV and Ebola. It was as likely as not that this virus could produce high mortality rates when it was first recognized as out of control in Mexico. Public information is a primary tool in controlling outbreaks and the media did it’s job here. We’re fortunate and lucky that this virus thus far has turned out be a mild variant. But just because we got lucky this time is no reason to conclude that we over reacted.

    The response is what it needs to be, the true nature of the threat is always going to be unknown for some period of time at the beginning.