The other side of the story

Testifying on the flu-that-must-not-be-named at the Capitol today In a Morning Edition interview today, former state epidemiologist Mike Osterholm, also one of the premier experts in the country on the subject of pandemics, provided a real glimpse into the workings of the major American news media:

“I actually had a reporter from a major media venue on Thursday of last week interview me about was the government doing enough, quickly enough, you know had they failed to act in this very important public health problem? And yesterday called me and now is doing a story on did the government hype it. The story line went that quickly from ‘they didn’t act fast enough’ to ‘now they hyped it.'”

Some things can mutate faster than the flu.

Unfortunately, that one reporter — probably from CNN or Fox — becomes “the poster child” for “the media,” and paints an unfortunate picture that ignores the work of hundreds of well-informed, calm, and ethical journalists who have worked tirelessly on the subject. And, yeah, I’m talking about MPR’s Lorna Benson, for one. Her appearance with Tom Crann a week ago, was nothing short of magnificent.

Media anecdotes provide great sound bites, but they do as much damage as the approach the journalist in question is taking and undermines legitimate efforts to inform you. Why should you trust any journalist?

Somewhat related to this, Mark Henderson, the science editor of The Times (London), wrote today that there’s still plenty of reason to take the outbreak seriously:

Most health scares are indeed groundless, and some, such as MMR, have caused grave damage to public health. Swine flu, however, is not one of them. It is a threat that must be taken extremely seriously, even if the death toll does not rise sharply in the next few weeks.

While scientists are describing swine flu as a mild strain, this terminology is relative. There is no such thing as mild flu — it is always a serious infection that can be life-threatening. The danger from this particular virus is especially acute because it is new: our immune systems are naive to it, and this raises the likelihood that it will infect a very large number of people.

There is also no guarantee that this virus will continue to be comparatively benign. It is a fact of life that flu mutates fast, and there is every possibility that H1N1 will become more virulent, or resistant to antiviral drugs. The 1918-19 Spanish flu began as a mild virus in the northern hemisphere spring. It returned with a vengeance in the winter, bearing a mutation that enabled it to kill 50 million. If swine flu disappears over the summer, we can expect it back when the weather gets colder and wetter. It might well have turned nastier by then.

But, overall, this remains a no-win situation for health authorities. There are too many agendas in play to expect otherwise.

  • JohnnyZoom

    Osterholm’s experience illustrates too well the real problematic bias not uncommon in journalism.

    The bias for a story that has a victim, a villain, and (if it’s a really good news day), a hero.

    And of course, a microscopic DNA crystal makes not nearly the epic villain as the government does.