The Radio-Television News Directors Association website posted an article by RTNDA chairman Stacey Woelfel, reflecting on the high school class clown who did an oinking and squealing routine whenever anyone mentioned swine flu back in 1976. He doesn’t hear oinking today but, rather, “the sound of hundreds of reporters beating this story to death.”
“The rampant coverage stems from the fact we’re in a good, old-fashioned arms race. That’s right, an arms race just like the ones the U. S. and the Soviet Union were having back when Gerald Ford was getting his swine flu shot. But the current arms race doesn’t have anything to do with out-nuking each other. It has to do with the escalating competition between media outlets to grab an ever-shrinking audience for our product. I must give credit to Robert Frank and his terrific book The Economic Naturalist for opening my mind to the current arms race scenario. Frank describes the race in economic terms, focusing on why businesses do what they do—even it seems illogical. That illogic is, I believe, at the heart of our swine flu crisis. We fight to do more and more on this mostly-trivial disease because we fear our competitor will have more than we do. But what we miss is that our audiences are laughing at us every bit as hard as I did when Ken Kosciulek (his old class clown classmate) started his pig noises.
Should we end all swine flu coverage? No. But our goal should not be to have the most coverage—just the best. And best may include not covering it at all when there’s nothing new to report. At least put the current news in context. I’ll risk mentioning another book all news directors should read. Pick up a copy of Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things. Even though the book’s now ten years old, it still speaks to our role in frightening the American public for no good reason. Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t cover stories that might be a little scary. But we should put those scares in the context of the odds—the odds of catching swine flu, the odds of dying from it, the odds you’ll even know you have it. That gives the audience a fighting chance to decide just how important the story is and to make an intelligent decision to tune elsewhere when they tire of it.”
If only RTNDA and its chairman and its website and its terrific code of ethics seemed to make any difference with its members! Sadly, that often doesn’t seem to be the case on journalism ethics issues – and certainly not regarding shoddy coverage of health news stories.