Sunday, October 23, 2005

Bird Flu Media Hysteria

Let's all calm down a bit. The media and governmental hysteria that is being whipped up in the talk of bird flu becoming an international pandemic is all too familiar. First, how about setting aside the illogical statements coming from the Bush administration. They are feeding into the media frenzy by saying they are set to call out the military, declare quarantines, and close the borders, when it is well-known that this does not stop bird flu (hey, birds fly, remember).

So, catch your breath, and compare the bird flu predictions of global mass deaths to recent media scares of a similar nature.

In The Copycat Effect, I wrote:

In the summer of 2002, the West Nile virus was declared a great danger to Americans. As it developed, however, only a small number of people died (54), but as the Christian Science Monitor noted, “One would think from media reports that Americans are suffering the plague.”

During the spring and summer of 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Disease, the “SARS epidemic,” replaced the hysteria of the West Nile virus. SARS first emerged in November 2002, in the Guangdong province of China, but by the first warm months of 2003, you would think it was spreading like wildfire all over the world. On April 23, 2003, USA Today was warning that health officials were saying that “if SARS is not contained, it could cause millions of deaths worldwide - and some of those deaths would almost certainly occur in the USA.” The death drumbeat of the media was very clear.
USA Today continued: “In terms of sheer numbers, the SARS epidemic so far pales in comparison to other worldwide epidemics. The Spanish flu of 1918-1919 killed roughly 30 million people, including about 675,000 Americans. Over the past 20 years, the slow-motion funeral march of AIDS has carried off 20 million people; 40 million more are poised to die in the next decade. Yet SARS is just beginning. The death toll could rise dramatically.”

On June 24, 2003, the newspaper that publishes “All The News That’s Fit to Print” did a special sciences spread on the “SARS Epidemic.” The
New York Times had proclaimed it the “Summer of SARS,” just as surely as Time had crowned 2001 “The Summer of the Shark.” The source of the disease was unknown and serious, but a look at the known death tolls in June 2003, when the “epidemic peaked,” reveals that worldwide there were 812 deaths, of which 348 were in China, 298 in Hong Kong, 84 in Taiwan, 32 in Singapore, and 38 in Canada.

For all the talk of wild animal attacks and deadly viruses sweeping the world, it is obvious the media misses the bigger picture daily, instead going for the melodramatic, the dramatic, and the sensational. If news organizations were really interested in talking about the most deathly animal around, for example, they would be doing more reports on mosquitoes which, according to the World Health Organization, are responsible for two million deaths annually from encephalitis, Dengue fever, malaria, and the West Nile virus, or the tsetse fly which wipes out another 66,000 people every year. But a news story about a mosquito just doesn’t have the bite of a shark story obviously.

The media loves melodrama. Sensationalism now rules the news. In the human realm, the media reinforces the events it covers. Otherwise, it blows subjects out of all proportion to reality. The unjustified amount of attention it devotes to shark attacks and SARS, for example, demonstrates that the level of media coverage has no relation to the real impact these topics have on most people.

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