H1N1 and The Media Dichotomy

Posted by on May 5, 2009 in media | 3 comments

Transmission electron micrograph of influenza ...

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I finally joined FaceBook. More on that later, though it’s already provided me with fodder for this blog. A friend posted a comment about the number of Influenza A H1N1 “Swine Flu” outbreaks world wide — about 958 — and is it really something to be that freaked out about? I share his skepticism partly because I’m a skeptic, partly because I’m awash in various, independent web-based news streams.

One of the most interesting things to me has been the reaction to the “pandemic” as defined by the WHO on places like Twitter: skepticism, lack of concern, some outright mockery. Meanwhile, compare this to some of the reaction in the print and broadcast media where it seems it’s time to stock the water, rice and beans and line up for the Tamiflu vaccination. As is frequently cited, more than thirty thousand people die each year from good old fashioned influenza, yet that neither stops travel to Mexico nor compels countries to impose travel bans.

There is much information available on the web and other sources and rather than stoking fears of horrid flu-death, the freewheeling and self-governing social networks are behaving responsibly and forwarding info deemed useful, questioning alarmist information and avoiding panic. This current event recalls the ancient Y2K issue for me. In the late 90s, social networks like today’s were but a fantasy, and the ones that did exist tended to be list-serves and billboards. The panic and hyperbole around the devastation to our way of life as a result of computers’ inability to handle the double-aught was infectious — no pun intended — and all over the media. Mobilization to ward off the end of Western Civilization as we knew it seems to have paid off, but was it really as bad as everyone thought it would be? Did Y2K warrant the anxiety stoked by the general media — unchallenged, at that time, by social media?

Maybe, we in the skeptical camp are all whistling past the graveyard, but the measured reaction of the citizenry — at least the social media citizenry — to the H1N1 outbreak stands in stark contrast to the groundswell of anxiety in the traditional media. I bet that it would be interesting to compare attitudes towards H1N1 of folks who are active social media participants/web news consumers to those who only get their news from traditional media outlets.  I bet the latter are “more concerned” than the former. Though, on the other hand, I’d not be surprised if no one was freaked out about H1N1 because everyone is sick of the traditional news media. . .

I think that anxiety we see and hear in the traditional media derives from the fact that fewer people are listening to them, and that even with a possible “pandemic” they can’t attract the eyeballs that net the advertising dollars. The basic premise of news, for a while anyway, is that stories of death mayhem and destruction attract attention. However, in the case of H1N1 it strikes me that there is a big “who cares?” afoot and that’s a pandemic for traditional media.

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  1. I’ll admit it.

    I went from a moment to concern at hearing about h1n1 to immediately making jokes about it.

    “Hey, let’s freak people out about this!” gets old very quickly as a headline promotion.

    Change in the air? I can’t tell. I’ve still got my medical facemask on.

  2. What’s very interesting to me is that since I posted this, H1N1 has seemingly dropped from the news altogether. Where did it go? Much ado about nothing.

  3. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I was glad to quote you – it was an interesting, thought-provoking article. Although (as you may have guessed), delving into social vs. traditional media doesn’t really fit into LSL, so I took things a little different direction.

    And, yeah, we could use a just-because trip to Costco, as well.