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The media, terror fatigue, and bird ‘flu

Just recently, the long-burning story of bird ‘flu’s potential to cause the due influenza pandemic (first picked up on this site at the beginning of the year) has become almost daily front-page news, despite the fact that it’s quite clear that any possible outbreak is months or even years away. Perhaps I’m being my usual over-cynical self, but could this not be symptomatic of the media tiring of terror, and Blair & Co. trying to distract the public from the disastrous anti-terror legislation they’re trying to introduce? And if so, is that a problem?

Bird ‘flu is pretty much the perfect story for the mass media. It’s an unknown, almost intangible threat to life, which is widely predicted to be a big killer. It’s indiscriminate, unfamiliar, and deadly. A bit like terrorism, but through a ‘sexy’ new sphere. And on top of all that, there’s the requirement to decide who should get anti-viral drugs and vaccinations – meaning that the ‘important’ people have to be named, which plays on people’s lingering sense of class division, one of the media’s favourite British preserves.

As far as the government’s concerned, it can quietly pass hugely controversial legislation whilst everybody else is distracted by the bird ‘flu figures they’re pumping out. The government also look very well prepared for the outbreak, and so get Brownie points in that department, too. And, of course, they have lots of information they can drip-feed to the media, who will inevitably lap it up, as they expand their coverage of this ‘inevitable disaster’.

In the worst-case scenario, there’s a whole shed-load of questions for the media to be thinking about – if 50,000 die at home, but millions abroad, how does one lead the story? How do you balance accuracy, responsibility, and sensationalism, so as not to cause mass panic but also boost sales of your paper? I’m sure these questions will be addressed in the fullness of time, and for now, bird ‘flu is a quick-and-easy unknown levelling enemy for the media – just what they like best.

So bird ‘flu suits the government and suits the media for the moment, which is good news all-round. There looks to be no immediate end to this fascination too, with the spread of bird ‘flu able to be tracked on a daily basis, and endless horror stories like this to print (ach, sorry ’bout that ‘un, gov’). But over time, it’s inevitable that bird ‘flu fatigue will set in, or some seminal event will give the news cycle a bit of a kick out of it’s predictable cycle. And that’s the worst part of the problem.

While bird ‘flu will ungracefully fall from the front pages, the H5N1 virus will continue to mutate, the expected pandemic will be coming ever closer, and the pressure on the government to be proactive will be conversely shrinking. Of course, this might be fine, as the pandemic may be prevented by early action in the outbreak country – but there’s always the slight possibility that it won’t be, and that one of the biggest natural disasters of our time will be witnessed – we have to stay alert.

This post was filed under: News and Comment.

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Comments and responses

Comment from Anonymous

    23.44, 18/10/2005

Why flu suddenly, instead of just flu?

Comment from sjhoward (author of the post)

    23.54, 18/10/2005

Hmm… good question… There’s no particular reason really! I would say it’s force of habit, but previous posts show that actually my habit is to use the none apostrophed version. And really, since the apostrophe doesn’t seem terribly well-placed anyway (should it not strictly be ‘flu’?), it does seem a little pointless. Certainly the broadsheet style guides (Guardian and Times) say that it shouldn’t have the apostrophe, and since I tend to follow them in contentious cases, I’ll probably drop it again from now on: Flu it is. Or, of course, influenza. But no more ‘flu.

As a bit of an aside, I’m quite surprised that anybody actually reads the blog quite that closely, so please don’t read anything into any other minor lexical changes I might have made over the last couple of years! There’s rarely anything much behind it!

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