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Media Ethics 101 and the Flu September 16, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

I apologize for being silent so long, and leaving the entire blogging effort to Dwight—I have been without a functioning computer for almost a month. A little lesson in planning for the future: Back up your files! Which I had done, but the hassle is enormous, even so.

Well, it looks like the H1N1 flu season is upon us, so it’s time to reevaluate the situation—not the urgency or non-urgency of the medical situation, which (as a comment so kindly pointed out) I am not qualified to judge, not being a medical expert, but the issue of media ethics, which is an area I do know something about.

In April and May, when the Swine/H1N1 flu made its first appearance, we were inundated with fever-pitch headlines in the news media, mostly based on rumors and random news reports. In a fairly quiet news season, the media glommed on to stories of the spreading flu, and apparently delighted in sharing gory gossip en lieu of solid information—which 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 serves little purpose other than driving up ratings, and that gossip-driven fear can spread like a virus. But now the media voices seem to have changed their pitch, mainly because information is now available. (And may we surmise, also because there are juicier news stories around for the moment?) This is a good development; regardless of their motivation, it is commendable when the news media disseminate useful info overall rather than attempt to whip up a storm of fear with fat headlines, spinning logos and dramatic theme music.

So what are we told now? Mostly bare facts: the flu is very contagious, but not (at this point) as lethal as feared. Vaccine is being produced, and will be made available. Guidelines are in place as to who should receive the vaccine first.  These groups have been identified:

 In addition to people ages 6 months to 24 years old, other target groups include any person up to 50 years old who has a chronic disease, caretakers of children 6 months of age, pregnant women and health workers…

 And common sense advice about how to keep each other a little safer from germs is being shared.

This overall mostly responsible, mature media approach may of course change at any moment:  It is balancing on an Aristotelian edge between hysteria and complacency, influenced by an array of factors in addition to (or maybe even instead of) what used to be the job of the news media: to inform, as objectively as possible. And this is where the responsibility of the news consumer comes in, because that, too, is part of Media Ethics 101: We need to keep our wits about us and evaluate the situation based on the information we receive, the source of the information, our own experience and our common sense.

So this is what I share with my students (who are coming down with the flu in increasing numbers, judging from their e-mails to me): We must give up on our traditional work-ethic that says you’re supposed to come to work/school no matter how you feel. That has never been a sensible rule, and now it should fall by the wayside. Learn to recognize the flu symptoms: body aches, fever and a headache, plus possibly a sore throat and congestion.  If you’re sick and contagious, stay at home and drink fluids until at least one day after the fever is gone! For your own sake (for the selfish among you) as well as for your fellow students, co-workers and teachers/bosses (for those of you who are community-oriented).  Bosses and instructors should understand that this is the right thing to do under the circumstances, and not necessarily evidence of a slacker attitude. And if you’re experiencing flu symptoms, keep a sensible distance to others (more than 4 feet), and please cough or sneeze in your elbow, not in your hand, or on other people for that matter…and above all, whether we’re feeling sick or not, we should wash our hands, incessantly.  After touching pens in banks and grocery stores, door knobs, school keyboards, and grocery carts, etc., wash your hands. And don’t touch your nose, mouth and eyes unless you have clean hands! That’s not all there is to be said, but it’s a start. And good advice in any season.

Above all, like they say in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t panic. It’s a flu, and flus can kill, but as of now  it seems to be no worse than any other flu, just different. Read and listen to the media reports, evaluate and try to sift hype from facts if you can, and take care of yourself and those close to you. Be safe.



1. Update on Flu Coverage « Philosophy On The Mesa - September 22, 2009

[…] is a very good article today from HealthDay News making more or less the same point that I made below in my posts about media coverage of the H1N1 flu, reassuringly putting things in perspective, and warning about […]

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