By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The story spread rapidly in the news vacuum of Sunday afternoon, when federal officials declared a health emergency, and by yesterday the coverage of a swine flu outbreak had reached fever pitch.
With front-page headlines, constant cable-news updates and top-story status on the evening newscasts, the outbreak -- with at least 40 confirmed cases in the United States -- was inescapable. But the sheer volume of media attention suggested a full-blown crisis.
"This is one of the hazards of 24-hour Internet-media-television," said MSNBC President Phil Griffin. "It's obviously a big story and you want to give it attention. I do think we have to be careful not to overstate it and not make people scared to death."
Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, said from Mexico City that some reporting, "if taken the wrong way, can cause undue excitement. But it can also calm or allay people's fears. You have to make sure what you're saying is absolutely credible and not sensational. I'm trying to provide that context."
But some analysts say the media are collectively going overboard. "Of course we're doing too much to scare people," said Mark Feldstein, a former correspondent for NBC, ABC and CNN who teaches journalism at George Washington University. "Cable news has 24 hours to fill, and there isn't 24 hours of exciting news going on. If you scare people, they'll tune in more." At the same time, he noted, "we don't yet know the parameters of how big this is going to be."
Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University's College of Communication and former editor of the Miami Herald, said the story has drawn public interest because it has international and local repercussions. His school, for example, has put out a swine flu advisory to students.
Fiedler recalled that some past flu scares trumpeted by the media have fizzled, saying, "We have a tendency to reach for the apocalyptic, but the apocalypse hasn't reached us yet."
Authorities have been feeding the media beast in an attempt to show they are on the case. In the space of a few hours yesterday, the cable channels aired news conferences by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
President Obama's comments ("cause for concern," not "cause for alarm") also played in an endless loop. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was peppered with questions about the administration's response to the flu outbreak, including this one from CBS's Bill Plante: "What did you know, and when did you know it?"
Newspapers did their part with big headlines. "Flu Fears Spur Global Triage," said the Wall Street Journal. "Nation braces for worst as new strain emerges," said USA Today. "U.S. Steps Up Alert as More Swine Flu Is Found," said The Washington Post. The New York Post went with "HOG WILD," complete with a photo of a pig.
There was no shortage of angles to keep the media embers burning: the impact on Mexico, the hardest-hit country; the impact on travel; the impact on the stock market. What about the high-level vacancies in federal health jobs? Was Obama in danger during his visit to Mexico? Why did Republicans knock out $870 million for pandemic-flu preparedness from the stimulus bill?
Some anchors and correspondents tried to provide context. MSNBC's Robert Bazell reminded viewers that no American has died from swine flu. Former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, co-author of the book "Germs," said on Fox News that "what we really need . . . is a tremendous outbreak of calm." CNN anchor T.J. Holmes interviewed Laurie Garrett, author of "The Coming Plague," who cautioned that "we still have a huge number of unknowns." The on-screen headline said, "Outbreak of Fear."
Gupta, who had been a candidate for surgeon general, said by phone that he has emphasized that 36,000 Americans die from flu-related causes every year. At the same time, he said, the fact that many swine flu victims have been in their 20s, 30s and 40s is a troubling sign. "The media can be very helpful in giving the right facts and helping people to protect themselves," he said.
These days, flu stories spread through more than just traditional outlets. Nielsen Online reports that Internet postings about swine flu are nearly 10 times as great as for the salmonella and peanut butter scare last winter, and the subject of nearly 2 percent of Twitter messages.
Still, such diseases as avian flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) once generated huge headlines about potential pandemics before fading from the news.
"I for one have told our folks it wasn't that long ago that bird flu was going to wipe out hundreds of people around the world," said MSNBC's Griffin. "Let's be sober about it."
Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."