The main subject at yesterday’s White House press briefing
, which I dropped in on, was swine flu
. It seems safe to say that, prior to the moment the story broke
last Friday, none of the reporters who were asking about swine flu knew anything about it. Still, they were determined to make it not just big news, but practically Watergate. Somebody actually said to Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, “What did you know and when did you know it…” Who the president might have seen on his recent trip to Mexico and his personal odds of infection
were of crisis-level concern.
Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Preventative Medicine, appeared on CNBC shortly after the story broke and was asked (by a skeptical me) to give the outbreak a 1-10 rating of risk. He gave it a 2 for the public, and a 4 for healthcare professionals. I’d certainly put the media storm at a 7 or 8.
We are now at a SARS (remember SARS?) level of coverage, and have well-surpassed Avian flu
—quite likely because swine flu sounds much worse. Both are public heath scares that failed to live up to their catastrophic billings.
Everybody loves the story of spreading disease. A fate that’s unlikely to befall you is a bullet missed. For the media, the use of the word “pandemic”
is instantly elevating—no matter that, if you think about it, there is a pandemic every flu season (which, a brief search seems to indicate, kills 20,000 to 30,000 mostly old people in the US every year).
The problem with this story—and of the SARS and Avian stories—is the media’s inability to properly describe the actual risk levels of a worldwide health crisis. But the fact that the story is untrue, or, at the very least, grossly inexact, does not trouble anyone, because the failure of swine flu to live up to its billing is, of course, cause for cheerfulness rather than opprobrium. You can’t go wrong by over-reporting a plague—even a plague that isn’t remotely a plague. After all, nobody dies of media coverage.
I suppose this early and instant attention to swine flu could also be the remedy: The sheer weight of all the attention means the right steps are being taken. Worth noting that in the early years of AIDS, there was next to no media coverage.
Indeed, that’s the sinking sensation: We miss the real stories, while we go crazy over the trumped up ones.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.