In the last few days, the top trending topic on Twitter has been "Swine Flu" (with "Mexico" in third). Thousands of blog posts mentioned the outbreak and Google reported that "Swine Flu Ohio, " "CDC" and "Swine Flu Symptoms" were in the top 100 searches. The news has spread faster than the epidemic itself, breeding a paranoia more severe and contagious than the actual disease.
British papers exemplify how the news creates a "pandemic" by publishing the swine flu as more severe than it really may be. Several tabloids purposefully generate fear in the public with phrases like "Prepared for the Apocalypse" in the Independent or, The Express with, "around a third of all humans could easily die off" as it compares swine flu to the black plague, SARS and the avian virus.
Using an ugly photograph of a pig, The Mirror chose to focus on two reported cases in Scotland with a headline that reads "SWINE FLU IS HERE" and follows with an exaggeration that says "Sore throat at breakfast ... dead by teatime ...how the last flu pandemic killed 40 million."
The Mexican press has also fallen into the "amarillista" (yellow journalism) trap as PRNoticias reports it. Every newspaper in Mexico has included a section on the swine flu. Even El Economista, a business and finance paper, created "Especial: GripePorcina" that explains the symptoms, prevention and cures. They even tie in the epidemic to the economic recession in Mexico.
Meanwhile, it has been reported that most of those contaminated have already recovered and the US public health officials are saying that although they call it a "nationwide public health emergency," there is really no reason to panic. Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano said that it sounds more severe than it really is and "is standard operating procedure allowing us to free up federal, state and local agencies and their resources."
Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization's assistant director-general ad interim for Health Security and Environment stated, "I believe the world is more prepared than we ever have been before for this kind of situation...we have new defenses, better surveillance, stockpiles of antiviral drugs"
The Chinese government, in an effort to avoid the cover-ups during the SARS outbreak, promises to make public any cases of the swine flu they see. State-run newspapers urged them to be open and honest taking into account how concealed SARS information was also a cause for public panic. "Disclosure of information will help to swiftly sever channels of infection," said a commentary in the People's Daily, official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party. "Now we must stress that any case of swine fever, even if it is merely a suspected case, must be immediately reported and immediately made public, ensuring the public's right to know, and making everyone vigilant to block the spread of the disease."
Online news coverage of the flu has also gotten creative, such as Nyt.com's and USA Today's use of interactive maps that show where flu cases have been reported and how many. China shows us that newspapers, as the watchdogs of society, can provide the public with the news it needs to understand the situation and remain calm. However, as sensationalist newspapers show, they also have the power to generate commotion, and terror depending on the words they chose. "I for one have told our folks it wasn't that long ago that bird flu was going to wipe out hundreds of people around the world," said MSNBC's president, Phil Griffin, "let's be sober about it." It is up to newspapers to be sensible in their reporting in an effort to protect the public with information.