Sunday, October 16, 2005

Media Panic

I am sure you remember the SARS pandemic scare a couple of years ago. Before that, there was the Anthrax scare, and even Y2K. The latest media craze is the bird flu. Fears over terrorism is always a fall back position when nothing much else is going on, in other words a slow news day. This is the nature of today’s 24/7 cable news networks. Instantaneously manufactured fear wrapped in the latest and glossiest commercial package. Every flu season, it seems like we are bombarded with fresh warnings of the worst case since the famous outbreak of 1918 that killed thousands. Conveniently, even though each new flu season brings a slightly different strain of the virus, a vaccine is already prepared and ready for instant consumption by anyone who is even a little paranoid about getting a little sick for a few days, which might happen even if you did get the shot. The only purpose for a flu shot is to try and protect individuals with weak immune systems, mostly the very young or the elderly. Yet when there was a purported “shortage” of flu vaccinations before last year’s flu season, many perfectly healthy people panicked, when they had no reason to. So the government restricted the shots for the elderly, the very young, and others with weakened immune systems, a sensible policy.

The bird flu fears have actually been around for over a year in the alternative media, and reported around the world before the majority in this country even heard about it. Now the fear has reached our shores, despite the limited number of human deaths attributed to this virus. Why is it that medical professionals are predicting a jump from the birds to humans and then human to human transmission sometime in the very near future? Why is it assumed that this will become a major pandemic that will inevitably kill a million people world wide? Where are they getting their information? There were similar warnings about SARS, which turned out to be baseless and severely exaggerated. The World Health Organization (WHO) is responsible for tracking new disease outbreaks and cross-species possibilities. The WHO is also commonly responsible for jump starting a hyper media blitz over such concerns, often reporting doomsday scenarios that are completely ridiculous. The American corporate news media organizations just eat up anything that tends to scare people on a mass scale. The government has not done much better managing information pertaining to possible disasters, in fact the Department of Health often adds to the media hype, as was the case with SARS and now the bird flu. All of this only serves to fuel the conspiracy theories of collusion between governments and agencies developing biological weapons in the form of experimental genetically modified viruses created in laboratories which then leak these pathogens in order to study their effectiveness on the mass population.

The only conspiracy going on here is profit. Fear-based reporting generates a ratings boost, which attracts more advertisers. The bird flu pandemic scare feeds the massive profit generating media machine. No actual fact based reporting is going to change the profit paradigm. This whole situation provides a great argument for media reform. Unfortunately when a true health threat comes along, most of us will most likely ignore it because of the memories of SARS, the bird flu, and others that turned out to be relatively harmless. The media does an absolutely horrible job of keeping things in perspective. A responsible media should concentrate more on factual evidence, rational or reasonable precautions for outbreaks or disasters, and accurate forecasts instead of sensational or exaggerated figures meant to scare people. Of course, who would watch such a boring news program, except for your intelligent concerned citizen?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, someone who also thinks the media does a horriable job keeping things in perspective. I also agree that when something does show up we need to fear, we will not listen. Look at the hurricane warning for Katrina. keep up the good work Tim