This past week offered abject lessons in media responsibility. Addressing the outbreak of swine flu at his primetime press conference on Wednesday night, President Obama told reporters that the situation was "cause for deep concern, not panic." Sound advice, to be sure. Too bad the U.S. press corps didn't take heed. The media frenzy over this story is hard to ignore -- but you might live longer if you did just that.
It should go without saying that the press has the responsibility to relay critical health issues to the public in a timely and accurate fashion. But there's a fine line between responsible reporting and fear mongering -- and based on the wall-to-wall coverage this episode is receiving, a great many news outlets have crossed that line repeatedly.
And why not? After all, fear is a great motivator; like sex, fear sells. If you ignite fear in the body politic you are certain to keep audiences coming back for more, and that's good for business. The rolling cable news channels discovered this long ago. In recent years, they've turned fear mongering into an art form.
"Fear is a great motivator; like sex, fear sells."
For example, remember the media hysteria over Iraq WMD? The Bush Administration did a bang-up job selling that bit of snake oil to an all too accommodating press corps. And in the days and weeks following 9/11, terror alerts drove people to distraction. For a while, sales of duct tape and plastic wrapping rivaled the money being made at the height of the housing bubble. Ah, the good old days.
Without putting too fine a point on it, journalists and news editors love to scare the crap out of the public. There's not much labor required, simply slap a few gee-whiz graphics together, add a bit of ominous music, and let the talking heads loose for a few hours, and you've got yourself a ratings winner. In a similar fashion, local news outlets, always eager to jump on the bandwagon of a sensational story, provide "team coverage" in a desperate effort to convince local audiences that the threat is very real, and coming to your town!
Media hysteria is nothing new, of course. It's a fine way to distract a public from far more troubling issues that receive superficial press coverage to begin with. But at this particular moment, when there is a genuine opportunity to move the country in a different direction, the flu story is being used to score political points, legitimate the rise of the surveillance state and, most noxious of all, inflame anti-immigrant feelings that are already at a fever pitch.
While the practice of linking immigrants to disease and "infection" has a long and storied tradition in this country, last week's spectacle over Lower Manhattan was something completely different.
"There's a fine line between responsible reporting and fear mongering."
Out of a clear blue sky, a low-flying Boeing 747, trailed by two fighter jets, flew up the Hudson River in some twisted re-enactment of the terrorist attacks that took down the towers of the World Trade Center. Naturally, there was panic in the streets as people scurried out of office buildings fearing the worst.
Turns out it was all a photo-op, for the Defense Department, featuring Air Force One, no less. The government orchestrated the whole thing and had photographers on hand to, according to the New York Times , "take pictures near the Statue of Liberty for publicity purposes." Thing is, they didn't bother to let New Yorkers in on it.
In the annals of public relations and marketing, this stunt has to go down as one of the biggest bonehead plays of all time. Haven't these people ever heard of Photoshop?
For a country buffeted by economic collapse, two wars and a health care crisis of another sort, such irresponsible media practices cannot be tolerated. It's clear to see that Americans are fearful, and a fearful people can do some pretty stupid things. These days, it seems, the only ones that have "nothing to fear" are the bankers, corporate CEOs and their political handmaidens who have brought us to this scary place.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.