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: