Work of the week: UK newspapers’ representations of the 2009-10 outbreak of swine flu: one health scare not over-hyped by the media?

There’s little doubt that emerging infectious diseases can elicit a major public response that is reflected in and/or driven by the media. This paper[1] questions the validity of an accusation often leveled at media outlets during outbreaks: that news coverage exaggerates public health risks. According to authors Hilton and Hunt, there was no such exaggeration during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, at least for UK print sources. They analyzed thousands of news articles printed in 2009 and 2010, recording key ideas and general tone. They conclude that, on the whole, the media faithfully communicated up-to-date scientific understanding of the disease and of the public health risk it posed.

This article brings a number of valuable points to the discussion surrounding a quantitative history of the 2009 pandemic. First of all, the authors offer a sound framework for analyzing the qualitative data generated by media sources. This information, in turn, can help explain anomalies in data sets that aim to measure flu activity more directly, yet are still susceptible to public panic. Second, though not mentioned by the authors, their work encourages scientists to maintain communication with media sources - we need not despair, for it seems our findings are usually  faithfully communicated. It’s encouraging to see such a thoughtful analysis of a contentious topic, and even more encouraging that the results offer a strong counter to the cynicism that can dominate these discussions.

References:

[1] Hilton, S., & Hunt, K. (2011). UK newspapers’ representations of the 2009-10 outbreak of swine flu: one health scare not over-hyped by the media? Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 65(10), 941–6. doi:10.1136/jech.2010.119875