Swine flu hogs news coverage, sows fear
By Jennifer Harper (Contact) | 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.