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The HYPE Virus May 2, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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For the past week I think many would agree that we have been under a mental siege, with no physical restrictions or symptoms (unless you are one of the few confirmed cases of Swine/H1N1 flu in San Diego), but with a threat of a flu pandemic looming. Toward the end of the week we heard the medical assessment that the (newly renamed H1N1, for the sake of the pork industry) flu virus may be spreading, but with less lethal results than we feared in the beginning of the week—less lethal than even a normal flu. Barring the possibility of a quick mutation, that’s very good news. And the upside of what may become known as the “Swine Flu Scare of 2009,” condescendingly, because hindsight is so safe, is that the oblivious among us have now also acquired good germ etiquette: Wash your hands often, cough and sneeze into your elbow (if you don’t have a tissue—and for goodness sake, remember to wash that sweater!), and maybe the most valuable advice of all, stay home if you’re feeling sick. There is no laudable work ethic involved in bravely showing up for work or school with a contagious illness when you’re risking the health of other people. We workaholics can learn from that little lesson (aside from Dwight’s well-taken point below that some people just don’t have doctors to go to, or sick leave).

That being said, what has concerned me greatly, other than the chilly thought of the pandemic possibility, is the way the news has been treated and spread by the media: Fat headlines about pandemics and deaths, most of which turned out to be exaggerated or false—so far. Some of you will remember the Avian flu and SARS scare a few years ago, the Anthrax scare right after 9/11, and even further back, the Alar scare, the Tylenol scare, and so forth. Some of those phenomena were worthy of our concern, others weren’t nearly as much, but in all those cases our concern was fueled, not alleviated, by media hype. The media world is undergoing a transformation these days:  some media formats are struggling to stay alive, others are thriving on controversies and fears, and the Internet is no longer just an Information Super-Highway, but also a Highway of mis- and disinformation. But aside from that, why do these stories grow to such monstrous proportions? For a number of reasons: Existentially, we are storytelling animals, as Alasdair MacIntyre has said. We construct stories in order to get a grip on our very chaotic reality. If we want to look at the evolutionary angle, we come from small populations of people who knew, or tried to know everything about each other, so we could establish a group hierarchy—so gossip is a perennial human pastime. And now that our global reality is so overwhelmingly close and beyond our control at the same time, we react with our deepest primitive emotions: fear combined with curiosity. So that’s who we are. But that doesn’t mean that is who we also must be. We can decide to be different.

Can we pampered, well-fed people get it into our heads that there is no such thing as a safe life? Safer, and less safe, yes. To a great extent depending on the philosophy of the government and the constitution.  And let’s not forget good foresight, and plain old luck. But there is such a thing as a responsible life, and how we deal with news concerning our health and safety is one of the things we can do something about. It is a question of media ethics, but it is also a question of how we conduct ourselves individually and in groups. Some dangers are real, and should not be overlooked, underplayed, or forgotten. Others have dangerous potentials—but we are not doing ourselves any favor if we fall prey to the gossip gene that we all share, and let the hype virus spread, because it will spread faster than any flu virus, and undermine rational thinking. If we give in to the temptation to gossip, and to the emotional rush of fear, fed by our talent for storytelling, we’ll find  that we waste a lot of good time on being uselessly afraid—and, since we are storytelling animals, we might also heed the lesson of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”: If we Cry Wolf too often, will we then be able to recognize a real emergency, and act on it, when we need to?



1. Chris Johnson - Phil 102b Thursday Night - May 5, 2009

I have some very similar thoughts, and couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on the scare tactics of the media. One particular newspaper I read was so hyperbolic that I almost called to complain. The exaggerations, ridiculous headlines, and misconstrued facts were so inappropriate they deserve to be fined.

I almost don’t really blame the newspapers as much as other media outlets though, because right now, it looks like they will all be out of business in 10 years. The Boston Globe is being threatened with closure if they don’t renegotiate deals, and I think any person with common sense can see that they are obviously just trying to sell papers, with out with out journalistic credibility.

The more severe wrongdoing was committed by television media. In a world where everyone turns to CNN, FOX News, and NBC for their news, they should have shown a little more restraint. In one graphic, they turned the entire country of Canada bright red, with bold “INFECTED” letters over the country. I don’t know how many confirmed cases in Canada there were, but I don’t think it merited that kind of response. CNN anchors were trying on masks, and later published a report stating that if you wear a mask too long, you could be prone to bacterial infections.

If anyone should be rational about these scares, it should be the news stations. They conveniently overlook the fact that they have a responsibility to their viewers and make decisions solely based on the principle of attracting NEW viewers.

2. Travis Weger - May 10, 2009

There are many different sides to this and to the idea of the “next big” disease, also to being susceptible to storytelling and being so easily influenced by mass media. We are evolving creatures, with time we adapt to our ever-changing environment, but this “hype” may just be a byproduct of our desensitization.

In a time where we have murder, rape, and torture at the control of our fingertips, we have undoubtedly become a “less sensitive” society. To even be able to perform these functions at our leisure is another issue, having such violent videogames in the hands of our predecessors could very well send us spiraling into a Roman esque period of acceptable public violence. With all these desensitizing acts currently available, what’s to say a briefly mentioned article of the swine flu would cause even the most informed person to bat an eye? Anthrax scares, SARs outbreaks, and bird flu warnings may have had a different effect had they of not been so overly publicized, or maybe the news media just WAS crying wolf. Maybe, and more likely, we are too overexposed in general, and it takes such an intense portrayal for anyone to realize something is happening in the world; we may never know.

With the public being informed and overexposed to so many different types of information, we are more able to control our lives, with what we do and where we go. Imagine, had the black plague been overly publicized in the 1340’s, it might not of killed nearly the 200 million it had. In a sense, it could be a blessing and a curse, but all I know is I would rather be over informed and make my own conclusions than to being uninformed and relying on word of mouth.

3. Katherine Gerlek: Philosophy 102b on Mon/Wed 12:45 - May 13, 2009


I agree with you. The use of the media in the scare of the Swine Flu was frightening. The speed at which news traveled about the “facts” facts of the swine flu was extremely fast. Which would have been a great effort on our media if all the “facts” had been accurate. When news leaked that the original scare of the Swine Flu was not as high in mortality rate as many had thought, especially in Mexico, i feel, personally, that the credibility of the media dropped. Many people during those weeks were only hearing the two minute clips that the news was bring. These people would spread what they heard and before we knew it, the Swine Flu “facts” had been passed through America as if it was one giant game of elementary school telephone. I wish that the news, especially the big headliners, such as CNN, FOX NEWS, and others with a higher sense of credibility then the local channels had practiced better researching methods, and been wiser in their approach with delievering the news.

4. you - August 28, 2009

Reported Hospitalized, ICU, and Fatal Cases of Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 Influenza Virus Infections in California, as of August 25, 2009:

1528 hospitalizations, ICU cases, and deaths

128 deaths

My friend was a computer enginner in 2000 when were going through y2k. that was a big deal back then.. people said computer will crash, sociaty will be paralize. but not many cases happened in 2000. i asked my friend. what happened? he said the threat was there. and it could have been a problematic. however, y2k was predicted earlier and the problem was minimalized.

as you can see in the up to date report, h1n1 is a serious theat and the sciencitst’s and the media’s coverage was right responce to a a problem.

what worries me is that you, a philosophy professor with no medical background will blog about h1n1 as a hype.

Tylenol scares that you mentioned that in your blog was a real problem too. someone was putting poison pill and people ACTUALLY died from it. because of media covage and the recall of the drug, the problem when a way ( and the invention of the safety seal)

Covering a forth coming disaster is a tricky thing. if the disaster some how got prevented ( Y2k, avian flu… etc) people like you will say it was a hype, scare.. etc.

but you have no background in virus study. and you should not comment this way just to feel intellectually expressed.

5. Media Ethics 101 and the Flu « Philosophy On The Mesa - September 16, 2009

[…] of course  wasn’t available yet. That was my main concern, and complaint, when I wrote the “Hype Virus” blog in May—not that the flu itself shouldn’t be taken seriously, but that fear mongering […]

6. Nina Rosenstand - September 17, 2009

It appears that “You” misunderstood the purpose of my post. I don’t claim to have medical knowledge, but I do have some insight into media ethics, and I fail to see how ratings-driven fear-mongering can serve any sensible purpose. In April and May many media outlets went with the story, because “If it bleeds, it leads.” Now the media reporting has reached a more responsible level, based on accumulated facts, and people are better informed. And indeed it appears that the virus is not as dangerous, in its present form, as anticipated last spring, although not to be taken lightly. The H1N1 virus itself, or even the media coverage, was not what I called “hype”—by the “HYPE virus,” ironically labeled in my post, I meant the “virus” of gossip-driven panic. Which usually does more harm than good. And apparently “You” failed to notice that I did take into consideration the serious potential of the previous “scares.”

7. Silva.C TTH Philosophy 102B - September 20, 2009


I really don’t think the Prof. was dismissing the severity of an illness which has killed a few hundred people- I think this is more about the glorification of instilling fear in people to keep them logged on for the sake of profit through viewer ratings.

Between 8/30 and 9/12 there’s been less than 400 deaths (in which over 290 may have been due to pneumonia rather than the H1N1 virus). This is rather MILD in comparison to the US seasonal flu which kills 36,000 people during a typical influenza season. Do we ever see a 24 hour ticker on the updated death toll of the seasonal flu? No- yet our seasonal flu is far, far more deadly.

H1N1 is new, and many people naturally fear the unknown and unfamiliar which will keep them glued to the television as a means to ‘educate’ themselves on this new virus. Mean while the media is profiting off the exploitation of those who are uneducated on the actual severity of H1N1.

Just for the heck of it I googled “H1N1” and there were 49,500,000 results. Then I googled “Iraq war” and there was less than 42,000,000 results. We know this 6 year war is no hype at all, and the death count is unthinkable!! Yet a virus that killed a TOTAL of 4,000 people WORLDWIDE produces more results? Why? Probably because the media needs to exploit us on something fearfully new in order to continue to profit because telling us the truth so we can take proactive measures as the prof. mentioned won’t increase their viewer ratings.

8. Jeremy Postlewaite - March 12, 2013

Swine influenza (also called swine flu, or pig flu) is an infection by any one of several types of swine influenza virus. Swine influenza virus (SIV) is any strain of the influenza family of viruses that is endemic in pigs. As of 2009, the known SIV strains include influenza C and the subtypes of influenza A known as H1N1, H1N2, H3N1, H3N2, and H2N3.”

See the most interesting blog post on our very own blog site

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