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Fast-moving flu keeps media, public on their toes

Dr. Nancy Snyderman was waiting to appear on NBC's Today show to talk about swine flu Thursday when she noticed Vice President Joe Biden was about to speak on the issue.

In the time it took the network's chief medical editor to wonder why Biden was addressing a health emergency, he let loose the gaffe heard round the world — telling the morning show's audience he would advise his own family members to avoid airplanes and subways until the concern had passed.

"I realized then, my whole segment just changed," laughed Snyderman, recalling how she tried to point out diplomatically that the vice president had overstated the danger. "We want to deal with the infection, but … there's a fine line between informing people and causing a multitude of nervous breakdowns."

It's a classic conundrum for modern media: By focusing on officials' efforts to prepare for the worst, some critics say, journalists have become a giant echo chamber for the public's fear.

The Daily Show highlighted cable TV's excesses, noting ominous on-screen maps glowing in bright red and correspondents asking repeatedly about the possibility of bioterrorism.

On CNN, some referred to the area in Mexico where the new virus first emerged as "Ground Zero," while newspapers across the country have featured banner headlines on a possible pandemic. But Snyderman insisted today's media network of 24-hour cable channels, Web sites and blogs is allowing viewers to see the global spread of a new virus in real time.

"We have put together a better-than-ever infrastructure for sharing health information," she said. "We're seeing that system working, but we also have this 24-hour news cycle, and the two are feeding on each other."

ABC News medical editor Tim Johnson spent long minutes on Wednesday's World News Tonight explaining that the term "pandemic" simply refers to the geographic spread of a virus, not its severity. "But even if every journalist in the world tried to moderate their comments, the total impact of all this coverage affects people … it's inevitable," said Johnson.

Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism said network news outlets seemed to cover swine flu the most this past week, offering less reportage on traditional news events such as President Obama's 100th day in office. He also doubted journalists were hyping coverage, saying that the speed and amount of reporting makes it easy for consumers to get lost in all the data.

But Elizabeth Cohen, a senior medical correspondent for CNN, noted social media and Web sites have also made it easier for viewers to soothe themselves with accurate information. "This weekend, people were already building their own Google maps on the outbreak," she said. "Sometimes, people can use that information to calm themselves down."

And as a radio host in Boston was suspended Thursday for calling Mexican immigrants "criminaliens" and saying the flu joined "women with moustaches and V.D." as the country's greatest export, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists issued a statement asking news outlets to "resist the portrayal of Mexican immigrants as scapegoats."

"We've seen how immigrants have been blamed for everything from disease to pollution," said Ivan Roman, NAHJ executive director. "We're trying to be pre-emptive."

Even as medical experts say they expect the virus spread to slow down naturally in summer, most journalists remained sure of one thing: The story isn't going away anytime soon.

"The problem for all of us is there's no quick answer here," said Helen Branswell, a medical reporter for the Canadian Press news service. "And journalists are like a bacterial swarm … there's so much of us, there's no way to keep this all in perspective."

Fast-moving flu keeps media, public on their toes 05/01/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 1, 2009 11:32pm]

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