When I was a journalist, there was a tongue in cheek rule that reporters claimed to live by; “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”
The media prized balance and objectivity then. Reporters were, by nature, cynical and brash; they questioned anything that was presented to them and went out of their way to find contrary information. The prevailing wisdom was to present both sides of an issue and let the public decide which one made more sense.
That model appears to have been abandoned in the way the H1N1 or Swine Flu virus has been covered. As they did with SARS, the Avian Flu and Legionnaires ’ disease, reporters are falling all over themselves to predict our pending doom from H1N1 even though the regular old flu is likely to cause 10 to 20 times as many deaths this year.
This weekend’s Vancouver Sun print edition built two full pages around a mathematician’s prediction that the worst is yet to come – not a doctor, a mathematician. He claims the virus won’t peak until December.
On the next page they ran an opinion piece about a doctor, a chief medical officer in eastern Ontario actually, who believes the H1N1 vaccine is a waste of time. The piece made the doctor appear to be a maverick with phrases like “swimming against the tide” and “Now, he’s at it again with H1N1”. You could almost see the columnist’s eyes rolling.
There were no such challenges in the story about the mathematician. The headline read “Scientists predict outbreak will worsen” and the mathematician was pictured leaning on a computer screen which contained complicated graphs and diagrams. Curiously, the mathematician story couldn’t be found on the paper’s website a day later. It was apparently replaced with two other sensational but contradicting headlines, “H1N1 flu nears peak, experts suggest” and “Brace for more H1N1 deaths, top doctor warns”
Earlier the media had tried to whip the public into a frenzy by suggesting that anyone who didn’t get an H1N1 vaccination would be a modern day Typhoid Mary. That caused some back pedaling when medical authorities admitted they didn’t have the vaccine yet.
But no one reported that Michael Kochen, President of the German College of General Practitioners and Family Physicians was advising people not to get the H1N1 vaccine because he had serious health concerns about it. Nor has much been said about a worldwide debate among prominent flu experts over whether flu vaccines provide any protection at all. For more on that, there is a well-researched and balanced article in The Atlantic.
So, while we try to find real information about H1N1, it seems a new vaccine would be very welcome – one that wards off media hype.