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Swine flu: Are media spreading concern or undue fear?

As our TV and computer screens fill with more and more images of people wearing masks and commentators looking gravely concerned, it is not too soon to start asking what kind of job the media are doing of covering the swine flu story. Are they responsibly alerting people to dangers and precautions that can be taken, or are they unduly alarming the audience?

Monday night at 10 right after 24, a series that has told its own share of stories about biological warfare and threatened pandemics, area viewers of WBFF's newscast were told that the disease has not yet spread to Maryland, "but experts say it is coming." Viewers were further told that every day "there is more and more to fear" in connection with the spread of the disease.

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Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the CNN and CBS medical correspondent, was reporting from outside a hospital in Mexico City using such terms as "ground zero" and "chaos" to describe the situation.

Tuesday morning, on NBC's top-rated Today show, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the show's health expert, was reporting "a couple of unconfirmed cases in New Jersey."

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It is too early to render an overall judgment on coverage, but I wonder how readers of this blog are reacting to what they are seeing on their TV and computer screens.

I can't imagine why Snyderman and Today were reporting unconfirmed cases. That seems to me one of the worst things a journalistic enterprise -- and Today is produced by NBC News -- should be doing. Wait for confirmation when reporting such data.

But Snyderman did close her segment by saying viewers should be "concerned...but not afraid." That seems like an excellent tone to take as of Tuesday morning.

Even though Gupta is primarily known as the lead medical correspondent on CNN, he also works for CBS News, and I saw him Monday night on The CBS News with Katie Couric standing in front of a Mexico City hospital. He had his own mask -- down about his throat. Overly dramatic? Maybe.

I hated Gupta describing his location as "sort of ground zero" and reporting what he described as a lack of basic supplies for medical workers at the Mexican hospital as "sort of the chaos here," but he was the reporter on the ground. I just wish the language he used would have been prudent and less sensational.

In terms of his work on CNN, you have to realize CNN is the only cable channel with a global mission that it takes seriously. Unlike Fox or MSNBC, CNN matters in Mexico and elsewhere in the world on a story like this, and the channel should be sending its top medical reporters to the source of the story and putting them on in prime time. On the other hand, they should not overstate and hot dog the story. Gupta is the only correspondent I saw wearing a medical mask -- though I suspect there were others.

As for WBFF, reporting that experts believe the disease will hit Maryland and Baltimore is exactly what the station should be telling viewers -- assuming that is what experts have told reporters at WBFF. As to saying there is "more and more to fear," I think all the stations need to be cautious about such generalizations and the use of language that could generate fear.

These were scary enough times without the threat of a flu pandemic. The media can make a huge difference in how citizens react to such challenging times. Let's hope for a media on their best behavior during this health crisis.

(Above: Associated Press photo of commuters riding the Mexico City subway by Rodrigo Abd)

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