It looks like we're highly unlikely to see millions of people dropping dead in the street from swine flu. We're lucky; a vicious pandemic is going to happen one of these days, but our total apathy and inclination to disbelieve in possible seriousness (even my parents forwarded me the joke about 'I called the NHS flu helpline but all I could hear was crackling' 'joke') is, I'm hazarding, a lot to do with the media immediately going into overdrive.
Now, I'm not here to say that the media hyped up a non story. There was risk, and it needed reporting. But instead of a measured analysis of that risk and waiting to hear what the epidemiologists were discovering about relative virulence and person-to-person spread, we got headlines like '140 million could die' and '40% of population could be infected' (note: I tweeted this article in the Independent last week citing an overblown headline; curiously, the headline is now more representative of the article's real message).
Of course, as noted by Ben Goldacre, millions could die in a pandemic. 40% of the population could be infected. Similarly, a tiny fraction of those numbers could be involved. At that stage last week, nobody knew the facts. But those rationalities were being buried beneath hyperventilating headlines and standfirsts, and terrifying introductions to news bulletins. And as new infections emerged slower and slower, and everyone who wasn't in Mexico – where, in all probability, there is less access to decent testing labs and swift doling out of anti-virals – developed merely non-life threatening symptoms, it felt like the media decided it had been cheated. It didn't get its pandemic with Sars or bird flu and now it didn't look like it was going to have fun with the piggies, so it started contacting people with a reputation for media naysaying to see if it could get them to blame the media for stirring everything up.
Make up your fucking mind. Either report sensibly, or don't. But don't go into overdrive and then blame each other for crying wolf.
What's really annoying is that the media didn't actually cry wolf over the core of the story; this had the potential to be serious (still does, if the virus, which is still out in circulation, takes a nastier mutation). But in their need to fill hours and hours of rolling news and the public's 'desire' to be told everything! now! with their/our apparently three-second concentration span, the media thrust the worst case scenario into our faces in big, bright, flashing letters. And then wondered why the normal reading and viewing public looked at the coverage, then looked at what was actually happening, and decided to make its own mind up thankyouverymuch.
The result of all this is another chunk out of the public's respect for the news and, ironically, a public that is less informed about the real risks. There's only so much wide-eyed staring at equally wide-eyed reporters and waiting for the aporkalypse that one can do. By placing parmageddon at the top of every bulletin and scaring the bejesus out of people, instead of running some thoughtful coverage in, say, the third or fourth slot, swine flu has been dismissed as a joke. Precautions we should be taking will probably be ignored. Even I, writing this post as I am, know that I should have bought some antibacterial hand gel by now. I keep meaning to, but there are two conflicting voices in my head: the sensible one that's read the sensible science blogs and is aware of the genuine risks, and the other one that's pissed off by overreaction and doesn't want to feel influenced by hype. I know which one I should be listening to, but it's the same way smokers know they shouldn't smoke and we all know we should eat healthily and exercise. Fuck it: I can't see any immediate danger to my health, so I'll carry on as normal because I'm now desensitised.
Has our media become completely incapable of stopping for a moment and thinking? Is the need to compete for eyeballs in this multi-channel, multi-platform world making it utterly impossible for any reporting other than shouty, attention grabbing predictions of doom? Is it that 'hmm, well, it might be more complicated than that' doesn't play well in focus groups? If you didn't watch Charlie Brooker's Newswipe you can now catch it all on YouTube; sort of a Daily Show for the UK, it's genuinely upset at the state of the news in this country (and the US, because where they've led, we inevitably follow). Swine flu came a bit too late to be featured which is a shame cos I bet it would have been fascinating.
Is it too much to ask that we, the news consuming (ugh) plebs are treated as adults, capable of digesting complex information? That we not be treated like infants, to be distracted with brightly coloured graphics and loud noises? That we be offered the nuances and shades of different situations rather than a choice between "everything's going to hell" and "nothing to see here lalalala"? It's no wonder fewer and fewer people trust the news and are tempted in by crap they read on the internet when they witness their news sources turn to blast and bombast, only to see no connection between what they're watching and what they're seeing in their daily lives. It makes me angry to think the news may have blown its credibility on swine flu by not being more responsibly restrained in its initial coverage – and if the virus does mutate and start spreading across communities, people may be less inclined to believe them and follow advice that could save lives. Now that would be a disaster.