Home > Uncategorized > The New Class Clowns

The New Class Clowns

-first posted at RTDNA.org May 4, 2009

It was 1976, Gerald Ford was president, and I was a junior in high school.  The big story that spring was an outbreak of swine flu.  My friend, Ken Kosciulek, was the class clown.  He did not miss this opportunity.  Every time someone mentioned the words “swine flu,” he would start oinking and squealing, push his nose up pig-style, and quickly end up on all fours wallowing around on the linoleum. I busted a gut every time (hey, I was only 16), and that reaction kept him doing it over and over again.  Interestingly, new coverage of the disease was widespread at first, but quickly disappeared once it was clear the flu probably wasn’t leaving New Jersey.  There was actually more coverage of some subsequent flu shots that fall that appeared at the time to have caused some deaths in the elderly, but that blew over quickly, too.

Flash forward 33 years and I’m finding myself laughing just as hard now at the coverage of this so-called pandemic as I did at Ken Kosciulek—except this time there’s no oinking sound.  Instead, it’s the sound of hundreds of reporters beating this story to death.

Now, let me get it on the record here that I think there is some news value to this story.  Any time there is a communicable disease on the loose that can make the sufferer uncomfortable for a time, it’s worth a report or two.  Since death is rare (there’s only been one in the entire United States so far), it’s not like this is as serious as a major foodborne illness like Hepatitis A.  Remember the outbreak in Pennsylvania in 2003 when a Chi Chi’s served some bad green onions.  Six hundred fifty people got sick and four people died—all from one bad batch of green onions in one city.  Compare that to the 226 cases and 1 death we have as I write this.  The green onion/hepatitis story was a big one about a threat than anyone could face in the grocery store or restaurant.  The swine flu story just isn’t.  Note this sentence from the CDC website on the swine flu: “It is expected that most people will recover without needing medical care.”  That’s right.  If you get swine flu, you probably don’t even have to go to the doctor to get it looked at.  It’s a virus.  It has to run its course.  Only those in special at-risk categories even need to worry about it.  So why all the coverage?

The rampant coverage stems from the fact we’re in a good, old-fashioned arms race.  That’s right, an arms race just like the ones the U. S. and the Soviet Union were having back when Gerald Ford was getting his swine flu shot.  But the current arms race doesn’t have anything to do with out-nuking each other.  It has to do with the escalating competition between media outlets to grab an ever-shrinking audience for our product.  I must give credit to Robert Frank and his terrific book The Economic Naturalist for opening my mind to the current arms race scenario.  Frank describes the race in economic terms, focusing on why businesses do what they do—even it seems illogical.  That illogic is, I believe, at the heart of our swine flu crisis.  We fight to do more and more on this mostly-trivial disease because we fear our competitor will have more than we do.  But what we miss is that our audiences are laughing at us every bit as hard as I did when Ken Kosciulek started his pig noises.

Should we end all swine flu coverage?  No.  But our goal should not be to have the most coverage—just the best.  And best may include not covering it at all when there’s nothing new to report.  At least put the current news in context.  I’ll risk mentioning another book all news directors should read.  Pick up a copy of Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Even though the book’s now ten years old, it still speaks to our role in frightening the American public for no good reason.  Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t cover stories that might be a little scary.  But we should put those scares in the context of the odds—the odds of catching swine flu, the odds of dying from it, the odds you’ll even know you have it.  That gives the audience a fighting chance to decide just how important the story is and to make an intelligent decision to tune elsewhere when they tire of it.

That’s enough of a rant from me on this topic—almost.  At the end of last week, when I decided to write about swine flu for the RTNDA blog, I caught wind of the change the World Health Organization (and later the CDC) had made to referring to the disease.  Both groups officially announced they would only use the technical name for the disease (Influenza A H1N1) and stop using its common name, “swine flu.”  I looked around quite a bit to see if there was a scientific reason for this change (such as finding out this strain was slightly different than the one we’ve know as swine flu for the last 80 years) and could find none.  My guess is this was purely political—a move brought on to keep the pork business happy.  My feelings were at least partially confirmed when I heard that one official had suggested dropping the swine flu terminology after the needless slaughter (you can’t catch swine flu from eating pork) of hundreds of thousands of pigs in Egypt last week.  So if the move is a political one, what should journalists do?  We don’t choose our terms for the benefit of the pork industry?  Should we use the mouthful that is “H1N1” or should we use the more conversational “swine flu?”  Perhaps I’ll write about that next week.

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