Brennan Linsley/AP

Americans Blast Media, Government for “Overblown” Swine Flu Reaction

May 08, 2009 04:45 PM
by Liz Colville
Some claim the government’s reaction to swine flu has been over the top, but many think the mainstream media and the Web have played a bigger role in creating panic.

“Swine flu hogs news coverage”

Quinnipiac University recently conducted polls of Pennsylvania and Ohio voters and found that the majority thinks media coverage of swine flu has been “overblown.” Quinnipiac also concluded that Ohio’s voters, by a margin of 2-1, “aren’t worried” about the virus.

Less people thought the government’s reaction to swine flu was “overblown”—29 percent in Pennsylvania and 35 percent in Ohio.

But a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted on May 5 showed Americans are “split” over media coverage of swine flu. They are “as likely to say the media have exaggerated the dangers of swine flu (45%) as to say the news reports are about right (46%),” Gallup reported on its Web site.
Prior to the release of these polls, some columnists were already calling out their media peers for clamoring to cover the story—and not always credibly.

Swine flu “provided a banquet for news organizations bent on exploring everything from local angles and economic implications to foreign policy, border issues and Tamiflu shortages,” wrote Jennifer Harper in The Washington Times.

“Online pharmacies and nefarious spammers” also caught the swine flu wave, creating their own headlines and adding to the “paranoia.”

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Some Americans suggest the government “cried swine” in their warnings about the disease, saying “all the talk about a devastating global epidemic was just fear-mongering hype,” as the Associated Press put it. “But that's not how public health officials see it,” AP added, “calling complacency the thing that keeps them up at night.”

MSNBC reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the young and those with other illnesses are most susceptible to the condition. Swine flu’s two U.S. victims both had multiple chronic conditions. Furthermore, health officials are “in good position to quickly produce a vaccine if the flu takes a turn for the worse.”

Opinion & Analysis: The swine flu blame game

The World Health Organization “added a scary-sounding warning” to swine flu coverage on May 7, AP reported, estimating that 2 billion people could get swine flu “if the outbreak turns into a global epidemic.”

It is precisely such “ifs” that prompted U.S. schools to shut down, Cinco de Mayo celebrations to be cancelled and other populated activities to be put on hold.

“It's really frightening more people than it should have. It's like crying wolf,” Carl Shepherd, a father of two, told AP. Other Americans interviewed by the AP echoed his opinion.

One implication is that President Barack Obama has overcompensated for former President George W. Bush’s response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which was, as Reuters put it, “widely criticized.”

According to the blog Think Progress, Michael Brown, the director of FEMA when Katrina hit, recently said on Fox Business that those in the Obama Administration “want to raise this [warning] level because that gives them more attention, it gives them more, you know, more legitimacy.” He added, “We shouldn’t be scaring the public.”

Think Progress countered Brown with sources who have “praised” the Obama Administration for its response. Eric Toner of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, for example, told The New York Times that the Obama team has “managed to get it just right.”

The Administration has repeatedly defended its response. On Politico, CDC head Richard Besser was quoted as saying, “With a new infectious agent, a new emerging infection, you may only get one shot at trying to limit the impact on health so you come at this very aggressively.” Politico also quoted Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano as saying “You have to get ahead of flu,” on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Still, the “media frenzy” over the disease has led to “overreaction in some quarters—and, rather cruelly, a backlash against Mexico itself,” The Economist reports. But citing the Spanish influenza of 1918, the magazine aped the words of the CDC. “[H]istory suggests” that the apparent abatement of the virus is “no reason for complacency.”

Reference: H1N1 Influenza A


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