Traditional media and pandemics

Despite the recent role of social media in generating and counteracting infodemics, traditional media continues to be central and influential in shaping and framing public debate on health emergencies, including pandemics (Pieri 2018; Dry and Leach 2010; Stephenson and Jamieson 2009; Jones and Salathe 2009; Wald 2008). The H1N1 2009 swine flu was allegedly the first pandemic to have inspired studies of social media coverage (Twitter), as it was the first instance in which a global pandemic occurred in the age of Web 2.0 (Chew and Eysenbach 2010; Eysenbach 2009, 2020). However, traditional media has been the object of many studies investigating media coverage across various outbreaks - starting for example with Sontag (1990)’s seminal work on HIV/AIDS, Nerlich, Hamilton and Rowe (2002)’s study of foot-and-mouth disease, Wallis and Nerlich s (2005) investigation of SARS, Staniland and Smith (2013)’s work on pandemic flu, and my own (Pieri 2018) on Ebola.

Size matters: uneven coverage and engaging journalists

Outbreaks vary greatly in the coverage they receive in mainstream media and on TV. Reflecting on SARS and the media coverage it had once the outbreak was officially declared, Abrahams (2004) makes the important point that not all epidemics receive the same kind of media attention. Sadly, he adds, not all deaths are valued, nor reported in the same way. The attention devoted by established media outlets to the SARS outbreak - once it became known -was great (Abrahams 2004). Despite its relatively low death toll of approximately 770 people, the media attention towards the outbreak was probably driven by the fact that SARS came to affect highly industrialised capital cities around the globe, from Singapore to Toronto to Hong Kong. My study of the printed media coverage of the 2014—2015 Ebola crisis (Pieri 2018) also reveals the uneven treatment and attention span dedicated to other outbreaks. For many months during the escalation of the Ebola crisis, the UK coverage was extremely sparse given that the outbreak continued to be perceived as a localised, regional and far-removed emergency (Ibid). This meant that even an unprecedented and truly shocking death toll of thousands of people in West Africa failed for months to reach the front pages of national newspapers in Britain. It merely appeared briefly, for instance under the business pages, in reference to disrupted mining interests and possible repatriation of the at-risk British workforce in Sierra Leone and nearby locations. Only once the crisis came to be understood as potentially threatening to spread globally did it begin to generate a large amount of media coverage. This ironically did not happen upon the WHO declaring the outbreak a PHEIC in August 2014. Instead, it occurred a month later, after a seminal speech given by then US president Obama in September 2014. In the speech, the outbreak was defined as being a global security threat, which catalysed a step change in the amount and type of coverage that the outbreak received (Pieri 2018).

Alongside a different sense of alarm and ethical concern for lives lost in locations perceived as remote, another factor to keep in mind when studying the mainstream media coverage of an outbreak is how such coverage handles and communicates the uncertainty that surrounds the course of a novel and potentially lethal infectious disease. How can traditional media and journalists communicate the uncertainty and the ever-shifting knowledge base about a novel pathogen? It is extremely difficult to make predictions about how an outbreak might develop. Such predictions remain fraught with high error margins. As we have seen, a pandemic may be a serious event of apocalyptic proportions, as a novel strain of avian flu not too dissimilar to the Spanish Flu that struck a century ago, which would most likely result in the death of 50-70 million people worldwide, completely disrupt the global economy (a 5% loss of GDP is anticipated) and send into severe shock our contemporary way of life (WHO GMPB 2019). Yet, we now know that it might also be a rapid and uncontrollable spread of a relatively mild pathogen, as proved to be the case with the 2009 swine flu, which was a novel H1N1 type A influenza strain, but which proved much less lethal than anticipated (its lethality in many ways being comparable to that of a seasonal flu).

As we have seen so far, lack of information and an overabundance of information are both problematic to our understanding of what may be happening in an outbreak. As we shall see next, though, it is the way in which information is narrated, or how a certain risk is presented, which comes to shape the understanding and public debates that ensue.

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