Dr. Ed Craig figured when called upon by MSNBC for studio commentary on swine flu that his job was to calm people down.
But Craig, a professor of clinical surgery at Cornell Medical School, found Wednesday that it wasn’t really necessary. As the story of the epidemic spread rapidly over the past few days, the coverage may be most notable for the caution displayed by media outlets who most often throw it to the wind.
“I’ve been very impressed by the recognition from the beginning that we had a real responsibility here to keep things in perspective,” said Rome Hartman, executive producer of “BBC World News America.” “We got an e-mail last weekend saying let’s make sure we’re paying attention to this story and covering it as competitively as we can but also understand the responsibility not to be hyperbolic. I know every news organization has been having that conversation.” (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft).
It’s a given now that every big story is overblown by the 24-hour cable news networks because of all the time they need to fill and a short attention span.
Yet swine flu has yet to dominate the airwaves that way. Coverage of President Barack Obama’s 100-day marker and the party affiliation switch of Sen. Arlen Specter have taken as much time. There’s been the usual number of “breaking news” or “news alert” graphics, but CNN has quietly phased out an alarmist graphic showing a man in a face mask.
“While the volume (of stories) would suggest we are in some kind of pandemic, the tone of the content has been calmer than that,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Craig suggested that was due in part to the response of federal health authorities, who have frequently made themselves available for news conferences.
“I think they have been responsible and upfront,” he said, “and I think it probably reflects this administration’s early attempts to let people know what they know and to say it if they don’t know the answer.”
Many newspaper headlines stopped short of screaming: “Relax, Don’t Panic,” urged the front of the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming. “Michiganders, Don’t Panic Over Swine Flu Yet,” said the Detroit Free Press. “People Urged Not to Panic Over Flu,” said the Tulsa (Okla.) World.
The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio hedged its bets: “Fear? Or Fear Not?”
It’s never unanimous, of course. The Boston Herald reacted to the first local cases Thursday with a menacing illustration of a person in a mask, goggles and full decontamination suit, with the headline, “Killer Flu Stalks Mass.” The New York Daily News sent a reporter walking through the city in a face mask to gauge reaction, and he was stopped by a British TV crew wanting to film him. A newspaper reporter interviewing passengers coming off a plane from Mexico in the Newark, N.J., airport wore rubber gloves.
A television station in Orlando caused a stir by reporting that a Mexican tourist visiting Walt Disney World was Florida’s first swine flu victim. The state called a news conference to deny the report.
When editors at the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News learned last week of the city’s first two confirmed swine flu cases, they debated even putting it into the paper. They decided to run a short story that ran on the back of the local news section, said Jamie Stockwell, deputy metro editor.
The story has exploded in all directions since then, but editors are being careful to keep things in perspective, she said.
“We’ve lived through 9/11,” Stockwell said. “We’ve lived through anthrax scares. We’ve lived through the threat of terrorists and through mass shootings on campuses. To add to the collective fear of our residents of perhaps a virus or illness that could kill them, that would be completely irresponsible to press it that far.”
The San Diego Union Tribune has 18 reporters working on the story. “It’s sort of like we’re in the midst of covering a wildfire,” said Laura Wingard, metro editor. “There’s so much going on.”
Yet editors there had long debates about alarming people before it first put the story in the front page, she said. Wingard said she makes sure every day to include in the paper the number of people who die each year from traditional flu, to make sure readers aren’t overly worried about this threat.
“We’re saturating people with information,” she said, “and I wonder when it does become white noise.”
The epidemic got its most prominent public face — a cute one, at that — when Mexican health officials identified 5-year-old Edgar Hernandez of La Gloria, Mexico, as the earliest known swine flu victim. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta traveled with a crew to meet him at a home that is surrounded by pig farms.
Hernandez may never know the extent to which his picture traveled the world. The Toronto Globe and Mail wrote about “The boy at swine flu’s ground zero” and the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald told about him in a story headlined “Unraveling the history of a mystery virus.”
The story was front-page news all over the world. The Japan Times published a front-page picture of men wearing face masks in a Chinese airport. South Korea’s Segye Times ran a large picture of a Mexican street filled with people in face masks. In Vietnam, where the bird flu and SARS had a big impact, it’s been the top story on state-run television every day since the outbreak was reported.
A Chinese newspaper, the Southern Weekend, featured a picture Thursday of a frightened woman crouched in the dark, wearing a face mask, and a headline: “Will it be a repeat of the 1918 epidemic?” That year, the flu killed between 40 million and 50 million people worldwide.
One New Zealand Herald story said that five swine flu “suspects” were being held in isolation at a secret location. Another story in the same paper headlined: “Anxiety spreads faster than virus.” Egypt has slaughtered the nation’s pigs, while in Thailand a health minister suggested using the name “Mexican flu” to not hurt the nation’s pork industry.
In New York, the Daily News found a 17-year-old swine flu victim who described how sick she was in the most modern of terms.
“I couldn’t text,” said high school senior Sophia Goumokas.