Ian Monk: Are media crying wolf over 'pig flu'?

Heard the one about the guy who thought he had swine flu? He's feeling perky now - which is how doctors think he caught it in the first place. Boom. Or those who say you are more likely to see pigs flying than spreading flu. Boom boom.

Ian Monk
Ian Monk

Or, unbelievably, the one about the flu-suffering couple who signed up a PR professional to sell their story. Boom boom boom. It would all be funny were it not serious. But, then again, is it really all that serious?

The sheer weight of pandemic media coverage precludes any possibility of equilibrium between vigilance and hysteria. It is impossible for any sane individual to assess the level of the threat.

One tabloid headline claimed humanity itself was under threat. The 24-hour news channels have mask-wearing reporters across the globe interviewing flu victims. The fact that they are capable of giving interviews suggests they have minor symptoms.

It is a flaw of the new 24-hour media age that balanced risk assessment becomes impossible. The urge to draw the largest audience compels editors to the worst-case scenario. Bad news sells. Disaster flies off the shelves and catastrophe breaks all records.

Ironically, the other current cataclysm – the economic depression, which many also believe has been hyped into a worst-case scenario by the media – is actually devouring through the disastrous advertising crash the very medium off which critics claim is feeding. It is monumentally hard for PROs to counter this media imbalance.

But I wonder, had it been a little more aware, would the World Health Organisation have moved so quickly to raise the threat level? Might not the UK government have sought balance with figures indicating that less than a plane load of people out of a global population of six billion have died and that not one is British?

Following the SARS and bird flu scares, the latest pandemic reporting may end up more associated with wolves than pigs. If the final verdict is the media cried wolf once too often, a vital tool in the PRO’s armoury to communicate information will be lost.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun

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