Monday, May 4, 2009

A pandemic of fear

The numbers out of Mexico were, at first, alarming. Thousands of healthy young and youngish people were dying from a new strain of flu. This new strain, never seen before, had origins in bird, swine and human flu strains. It spread through the air and there was no preventative. Thousands, maybe millions of Mexicans were wearing masks as protection from the virulent life-threatening disease! Some cable news networks became "all flu, all the time" in the way cable news networks attack anything that sounds like it might, just might, be news.
School districts closed schools at the hint that there might have been a case in one of their students, our vice-president counseled against flying to Mexico (now is a great time for fat people to fly to Mexico because we don't have to pay for that vacant seat next to us), pastors announced the best way to commune without exposing yourself or others to the flu.
As it looks now, this strain of flu is no more life-threatening than any flu although it may claim a higher than normal number of victims in the wide range between very young and very old. It is very good to know that intinction is not safer than common cup for communion, but that may be the only big news of the entire experience. The fact is, one protects oneself and others from swine flu (by any name) in the same way one does so for any kind of flu. Stay home if you feel might be coming down with something, cough into your sleeve (an fascinating subject getting new promotion), wash your hands frequently and keep them away from your face. This is not news, but it is nice that we were reminded of the common sense things.
What this flu epidemic or pandemic may show is the trouble with cable news and the increasing trend toward yellow journalism.
When you have 24 hours a day to fill with news, the pressure is on to find news. Finding none, the pressure is on to create news and created news is, almost by definition, sensationalism. If not sensationalism, it is overkill. Certainly, the fellow who blocked the back entry to the community center before going in the front door, gun blazing, is news. It may not, however, justify a full news crew across the street, a streaming video in the corner of the screen and reporters canvassing each block of the city and office of government for speculation about what is happening.
Swine flu might merit a mention in a compilation newscast, but when it is reported hourly or half-hourly with accompanying speculation about cause, spread, etc., it promotes unnecessary fear, even panic.
It just might be time for a refresher course on what is news and, perhaps, examination of why (if) we need news 24 hours a day.

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