Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Did the media catch the flu?

From The Hoot, August, 2009

The tempering words of a few individuals cannot possible negate this overall picture that comes through the visuals. KALPANA SHARMA asks if the media lost perspective in the way it covered the HINI Flu.

Posted Wednesday, Aug 12 16:48:10, 2009

Kalpana Sharma

Is the media responsible for the current swine flu panic in India or is the government’s response to blame? This question is being asked and will continue to be asked. While the government could be faulted on many counts, we have to consider the media’s responsibilities when there are health emergencies.

First of all, is this a health emergency? Union Health Secretary Naresh Dayal was heard on television within a day of the first death being reported appealing to the media to have a sense of perspective on the issue. He pointed out that in India, of every 1,000 live births, 55 children die. Yet, the media never considers this a health emergency worth their attention. But with swine flu, every news channel and newspaper has led with this story for days on end.

So has the media lost perspective? If you look at just the numbers affected and the fatalities, you would conclude that it has. More people die each day from malaria, infection, diarrhoea and other gastro-intestinal infections, and tuberculosis than have died of swine flu since the first incidents were reported. Therefore why the overdrive by the media?

One obvious reason is that when a disease hits the metros or the middle classes, it becomes a subject worth pursuing but when it affects people in remote areas, no news organisation is willing to invest in sending people to cover it. Every year, hundreds of people die of kala azar, malaria and other infectious diseases in non-metro areas in India. Yet the coverage is only perfunctory. Only if the spread of infection threatens our cities does the media wake up and take note.

Typically, television news focused almost exclusively on the swine flu for days on end. On August 11, the Centre asked TV channels to show restraint in their coverage. Although NDTV was one channel that did run a programme reminding viewers about other diseases and deaths caused by them that are a daily occurrence in a country like India, the main news bulletins on all channels were filled with non-stop visuals of people in face masks, crowds lining up in front of hospitals and grief stricken families who have lost a loved one. The problem with this type of coverage is that it tends to make the problem larger than it is. The tempering words of a few individuals cannot possible negate this overall picture that comes through the visuals. And when one issue is covered to the exclusion of all else, then the general public is forced to believe that the problem is acute and out of control when it actually is not.

Print, because of the nature of the media, was a little more moderate although not across the board. Some newspapers did try and place the health crisis within the larger framework of health care and other diseases. Yet, as with television, the message that the front pages of newspapers conveyed cancelled any moderation that might have been there in the coverage on inside pages.

On August 11, for instance, three of Mumbai’s English language papers that I monitored led with a swine flu story and had banner headlines. The fourth carried it as the first lead but had another story on the top of the fold as the second.

The Times of India had a banner headline “Not ready for H1N1: City pvt hosps” and carried a photograph of doctors in white protective clothing at the Haffkine Institute where tests are conducted. At the same time, also on the front page was a story by Nirmala M. Nagaraj under the heading, “India’s public health spend amongst lowest” and stated that health spending was even less than in some sub-Saharan countries. The placing was significant as it used the swine flu to bring home the larger issue of health spending.

On an inside page, TOI carried a diagram explaining how and why H1N1 affects the young and healthy. At the bottom of the diagram it raised the question: Where is India headed? And answered it: “The last four-five months experience has led doctors to ask whether the endemic influenza strains of the country actually make us more immune. Incidentally, our mortality rates have been one of the lowest”.

The paper also had a five-column item on what other countries did to contain the spread of H1N1, including a graphic setting forth best practices. It gave a chart with the top 10 countries where deaths caused by the virus had been reported. The highest number was from the US. India did not feature anywhere on the list.

But do readers read this fine print? Probably not. Most of them will read headlines, look at visuals and get into panic mode.

DNA on the same day had a banner headline: “Govt expands war on H1N1” followed by a front-page edit with the headline “A 26/11 challenge for public health”. “War”? Comparisons to “26/11”, the short form for the terror attack on Mumbai last November? Are these really called for? The edit went on to state: “While the death toll is still small, there is little doubt that in a few weeks from now we will see a dramatic escalation. Nothing less than all-out war on H1N1 will suffice anymore.” The next day, August 12, it tried to substantiate this point by running a story, based on projected trends, under a banner headline: “Swine flu cases may hit 1 crore in December”. Are these kinds of projections and the hyperbole in the editorial justified in the current situation where in a country of over one billion people, there have been 11 deaths and less than a thousand cases of infection?

The Hindustan Times on August 11, interestingly enough, tried to bring in some kind of perspective even in its page one banner headline that read: “H1N1 kills 3 more, common flu could be killing 572 a day.” The story that followed explained how many people die of the common flu in a country like the United States and through extrapolation worked out the figure for India. One could quibble about the arithmetic but at least an attempt was made to place the issue in some kind of larger perspective. The paper also pointed out that in the US, there were 6,506 cases of infection from H1N1 and 436 deaths until August 6. Despite this schools were not closed. As we know, in India, dozens of schools have closed if even one student is found to have an infection.

On August 12, the Hindustan Times carried an editorial, “Don’t press the panic button” that acknowledged that media had “gone into overdrive and are reporting on the issue as though it were the Black Death itself.” Targeting the electronic media, the editorial went on to state, “Ill-informed interviews and the all-pervasive ‘breaking news’ logo have created a frightening scenario that has obscured the real facts about the virus and how to combat it.”

The Indian Express on August 11 led with a Pune datelined story and reported on how it had affected the city. As it is the place with the highest incidence of infection, the story would not have added to the panic. And it carried a second lead on a totally different subject. A full page was devoted inside to flu related stories but otherwise the paper carried news from all parts of India.

In some ways, even this partial survey of the print media underlines its importance at times like this. The newspapers that have attempted to place the issue in perspective would have helped calm the panic, that is if we assume people read at all, or read beyond the headlines.

Television news, on the other hand, contributed to the panic reaction that led hundreds of people to rush to hospitals to get tested even if they had the mildest symptoms. Even the best-equipped public health system cannot survive such a battering and India certainly does not have the best of such systems.

If the swine flu can teach the media something, it should be this: that there are areas like health that require constant and sustained attention and not just when a “pandemic” is declared. In many countries, newspapers and news channels have dedicated reporters who cover medical and public health issues. Over time, these individuals build up a background, contacts and a perspective that becomes particularly important at times like this. For instance, The Hindustan Times story mentioned above, is written by Sanchita Sharma who has been covering health for many years. But most Indian newspapers are not willing to assign a person specifically for this beat. As a result, when there is a crisis, no senior journalist on the staff is equipped to bring in a perspective and guide the coverage.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good to see someone from the media calling this out. My take on the whole panic: