- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Coverage of swine flu brought out the piggish side of the press - and some squealing from the public as well.

Journalists couldn’t get enough of the story, garnishing their accounts Monday with alarmist terms, exaggerations and tales of epidemics past. The ailment provided a banquet for news organizations bent on exploring everything from local angles and economic implications to foreign policy, border issues and Tamiflu shortages.

Swine flu panic has ensued.

“We’ve definitely had a big increase in sales of hospital masks since Sunday. Really big,” said Vicky Nichols of the 7 Store, a survivalist and medical supplier in Utah.

Online pharmacies and nefarious spammers alike played on public paranoia to peddle flu cures, using such suggestive sales lines as “Madonna caught swine flu.” Twitter and other social media sites also caught the bug; rumors or facts out of context circulated among millions.

Dow Jones and Hong Kong stock numbers fluttered, then fell as skittish investors considered the impact of a worldwide epidemic. Hogs and pork bellies futures “plunged,” according to a Bloomberg analysis.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and President Obama urged Americans to exercise “concern” but not panic. Press drama, driven by death counts and talk of “escalation,” fed public imagination, however.

ABC News, for example, showcased “the father of bird flu,” virologist Robert Webster, who said “50 percent of the population could die” should the virus mutate.

“This was just one example of television’s trend toward terrifying viewers with a threat where the total fatalities do not yet equal the number of people who are killed each day on the nation’s roadways,” said Dan Gainor of the press watchdog Business & Media Institute.

The sheer volume of coverage was inescapable, prompting some media analysts to conclude that attention to Mr. Obama’s first 100 days would be overshadowed by swine flu fixation. By noon Monday, more than 25,000 print stories had appeared on the ailment. Swine flu also went viral, leading the top 10 topics of Nielsen’s “Blog Pulse,” which tracks daily online activity.

Coverage took on political overtones, meanwhile.

Bloggers and cable news in particular seized on the blame game, examining whether Republicans, Democrats, former President George W. Bush or Mr. Obama was ultimately to blame for the flu’s appearance in the United States.

“GOP know-nothings fought pandemic preparedness,” wrote John Nichols at the Nation magazine Web site.

“Of course. Swine flu is all the evil GOP’s fault - Chuck Schumer opposed flu pandemic funding in stimulus, too, you morons,” Michelle Malkin countered at her blog, referring to the Democratic senator from New York.

“We need some perspective here,” said Fox News anchor Brit Hume. “It was the Centers for Disease Control that had the definitive review of this.”

The term “swine” flu came under fire.

Concerned that the public would get the impression the ailment came from eating pork, the World Organization for Animal Health advised reporters to drop the term.

“There is no evidence that this virus is transmitted by food,” the Paris-based agency said. “Many human influenza epidemics with animal origin have been named after their geographic origin, for example, Spanish influenza or Asiatic influenza, thus it would be logical to call this disease ‘North-American influenza.’ ”

Israeli Health Minister Yakov Litzman announced that his government’s official designation would be “Mexican flu.”

The press has been cautioned for six years to be prudent in its coverage of public health threats by a consortium that included the Harvard University School of Public Health and the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation.

“In order to minimize fears, journalists should steer clear of speculating as to what may happen next or what officials are planning,” noted one advisory that appeared in 2003.

“Reporters often are urged to put the most newsworthy information at the top of the story. But words and their placement in stories have the potential to inflate the importance of a situation or convey emotions that ultimately may contribute to misunderstanding and fear.”

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