- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Alarming hype about SARS in the news media has reached epidemic proportions overseas as journalists mix facts with speculation and sensationalism.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, praises American press coverage so far of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
"For the most part, the coverage has been measured, emphasizing the factual on a day-by-day basis," Dr. Fauci said yesterday. "Journalists need to see this as an epidemic in evolution. The situation changes daily and weekly, and reporting should reflect that."
That might not appeal to a news media primed for action by the war in Iraq.
The global press learned of SARS from the World Health Organization March 12, when officials called it "atypical pneumonia." It has since mutated to "killer flu," "deadly virus" and "mystery illness" among journalists tempted to treat it like an anthrax attack or ebola scare.
According to recent reports, the syndrome is spread by cockroaches, sewer pipes, Chinese food, sneezes, toilet seats, chickens, ducks, pigeons and owls. Conspiracy theories, links to bioterrorism, communist cover-ups, negative ethnic stereotyping and surgical masks as fashion statements are among secondary stories.
"In U.S., fear is spreading faster than SARS," a New York Times headline proclaimed April 16.
"TV has so overly sensationalized it. Shame on you guys," one Florida pastor's wife told the press after apprehensive members of her church wouldn't attend services. The couple had just returned from a trip to mainland China.
News of the virus went mostly unreported in Beijing until March. But demand for information overwhelmed Chinese health officials, who now hold a daily SARS press conference to appease journalists, rather than releasing a statement every five days as in previous weeks.
Indian officials accused news organizations of creating panic by bandying about the term "SARS" indiscriminately. "The media hype is damaging the country," one health minister said. Hong Kong authorities resorted to a text message to 6 million mobile phones to stem a press-fueled rumor that the area had been declared an "infected city."
Kevin Mitchell, founder of the Business Traveler Coalition, says hype suits an information-hungry society. The Atlanta-based consumer group has tracked the effect of SARS coverage on air travel for weeks.
"The premier of China called the situation 'grave.' How do you overhype something like that?" Mr. Mitchell asked. "There have been thousands of stories out there, some good, some bad. But if they were all hype, you'd find everybody locking themselves in their closets. And they haven't done that yet."
Barbara Cochran of the Radio and Television News Directors Association says questionable press coverage can be prevented by practical preparation.
"We issued guidelines for reporting on bioterrorism. This is similar," she said yesterday.
The association's guide advised journalists to help the public to discern between "crisis and catastrophe," and called for a quick release of straight facts, restrained reporting and use of balanced sources.
"News organizations need to prepare in advance for a story like this," Mrs. Cochran added. "They need to understand how the public health system works, its chain of command and the protocol in place, should a real epidemic begin."

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