Has the media decided the swine flu story it wants to tell?

We’re all back safe and sound from Mexico, and the past few days there feel all the more odd looking back at them from a few thousand miles away. I just wanted to share an interesting (and depressing) moment as we came out of arrivals at the airport. It wasn’t journalism’s finest hour.

Most of us queueing to check-in at Mexico City airport were wearing masks, most of us kept them on on the plane, and a few of us wore them right up until passport control. I didn’t see anyone wearing one from then on.

As we came out of arrivals there were around twenty press photographers and a few TV cameramen. They were shouting ‘who’s come from Mexico?’ but weren’t interested as people signalled that they had. Then they spotted a woman with a mask around her neck.

‘Put it on, put it on,’ they shouted and then when she did the flashbulbs went into overdrive. Then they got her child to put on her mask as well. More snaps.

They weren’t in the slightest bit interested in the hundreds of us coming through who didn’t think a mask was necessary.

And we all know which picture will get sold to the newspapers, and which video clips will be used on some of the TV news bulletins.

I then bought a paper and read this furious column by Simon Jenkins who’s alleging that both the media and the WHO have an interest in cranking up concern about swine flu.

I then picked up the Daily Express which had a huge headline saying 40 per cent of Britons could get swine flu. The story that followed backed the headline up with quotes from the WHO.

I’m not saying I agree with Simkon Jenkins, nor am I criticising the Express story, but the way this outbreak is being portrayed is clearly a major issue and ties in with our discussion yesterday about if the world’s reaction is in proportion to the threat to our health.

That short moment in the arrivals hall suggested that in some quarters the desire to portray this outbreak at its most threatening and scary is there.

11 Responses to “Has the media decided the swine flu story it wants to tell?”

  1. 1 Steve in Boston
    April 29, 2009 at 16:17

    A Mexican couple visiting the US with a young child who clearly became infected with the swine flu in Mexico, went to a Houston hospital to seek medical attention for their child who subsequently died.

    The headlines today are screaming “First U.S. Swine Flu Death!!!”

    Well yes, I guess if the infected people from all over the world come here to die, the US will certainly have the highest death rate in the world.

    The line between journalists and paparazzi grows grayer every day.

  2. 2 Luci Smith
    April 29, 2009 at 16:52

    Well, I am also a person with a press card and I think that it is important to look at what you do and what your colleagues do in order to get or to illustrate a story. Aren’t we all encouraged to push the envelope?

    I just hope that what you describe in the airport and your reaction to the newspaper articles – compared to what you experienced in Mexico will contribute to your becoming an even more serious journalist, Roz.

    The possibility that this flu will become a dangerous epidemic makes it a difficult story to judge. If you don’t take it seriously and it happens, you are wrong and if you are too hysterical about it and nothing happens, people will point fingers at you.

    Erring on the side of caution does not sell newspapers.

  3. 3 gary
    April 29, 2009 at 17:23

    Hello Ros,
    I’m glad everyone has gotten back home in apparent good heath. The press behavior at the airport seems reprehensible; but fairly “in character.” Reading Mr. Simon Jenkins’ rather curious column reinforced a belief about the great-unwashed masses of humanity that has been forming in my brain for a long time: It seems every holy man knows the mind of God, every politician the will of the people, every marketing expert the next fashion, and every journalist the truth. Scientists seem unique in their willingness to admit ignorance of the future.
    No one knows all about swine flu. All will not be known when this event is history. However, it is difficult for me to imagine a person more profoundly ignorant of virology than Mr. Jenkins seems. I suspect he does not even realize a mass of pure swine flu virus sufficient to infect every human on the planet would likely be less than that of a couple of pennies in his pocket.

  4. 4 Dennis Junior
    April 29, 2009 at 18:11

    Yes, the media has already decided to what part and point of the story they want the world needs to know about the situation on SWINE FLU….

    -Dennis Junior-

  5. 5 Jennifer
    April 29, 2009 at 18:34

    The media decides every story it want to tell and in what light it wants to tell said story.

  6. 6 Ros Atkins
    April 29, 2009 at 18:57

    Hi everyone. Luci, you’re of course right that it’s a serious story which requires serious and comprehensive coverage. But the masks and words like ‘epidemic’ and ‘pandemic’ add this story a visual and linguistic dimension that can easily affect the tone of the coverage. It’s the same with coverage of the Somali pirates story. The word pirate affects how much the press covers the story, and how they do it. John Stewart on the4 Daily Show is good on that one.

    None of this is wrong if there’s an appetite to read about one event or another. I was just struck that there was no sense at the airport of a group of stressed mask-wearing Brits coming home as fast as possible. But that was what those photographers wanted to communicate with a picture and they were determined to get it.

  7. 7 Jennifer
    April 29, 2009 at 19:09

    Oh BBC,

    You are the perfect example!

    Yes, I am talking about you manipulating my comments.

    Please post them in their entirety or not at all. Nothing in my post was rude or not based on fact.

    Twist, twist! Spread the ignorance and misinformation.

  8. 8 Wandering WILL
    April 29, 2009 at 21:08

    I worry about pre-conceived notions on either side. “The Media” is not guilty of all the sins purported. I cannot conceive that “the Media” got together and decided to tell only the side of the story which is “bad” to further some concept. “The Media” seems to be reacting to what is there. The Masks connote a story in picture that words won’t. Masks not worn don’t show an idea. Yes, they might have asked everyone without masks who wanted to talk. But that didn’t work, did it? We humans without cameras make the same moves the cameramen do. The proof is in the picture. There is no proof in the mind (as you go on your way).

  9. 9 globalcomedy
    April 30, 2009 at 04:39

    This example in the airport illustrates the hype that the media tries to deny. Were all of these reporters paparazzi? Did all of them work for Murdoch? Probably not. Why then people yelling , put it on?

    Because it sells. Walter Cronkite doesn’t watch the CBS Evening News anymore. Why? Because it’s all blood and guts. Now, media profit is way down. Which means that management is looking for every angle to hype. Reporters are largely judged on how often they’re on the air or their byline is seen. The MSM can have on all the “experts” they want to analyze this to death. But the truth is they’ll keep right on hyping it. Because it’s “free speech.”

  10. 10 globalcomedy
    April 30, 2009 at 04:41

    Did anyone bother to tell these people that many think that the masks DON’T protect you? Apparently not.

  11. 11 ecotopian
    April 30, 2009 at 15:25

    Yes, Ros, they have. Jon Stewart figured that out on Monday 27 April. Go to:http://www.thedailyshow.com/ and watch the first segment. There’s a part in it where you see a couple of news networks saying, “We don’t want to freak you out…” Stewart replies, “You’re the reason we are freaking out!” He nailed it on Monday. He also called it the scare off. It seems all the media is trying to do right now is scare the heck out of a lot of people. But then, that’s what they’ve become very good at. Who needs reporting when they can just scare people.

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