It was big news when a Florida man died after inhaling the Anthrax
It was the first such death in 25 years. But when health officials
confirmed that two of the man's coworkers at American Media were exposed
to the virus as well, the news brought fears of a deliberate
Although the FBI has announced that they believe foul play was involved
in the anthrax cases, they had not found any evidence linking this to
the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Even so, news
reports indicated that the public was not waiting for an official
Coming so soon after September 11, both events quickly became related in
the minds of many people.
News coverage was replete with tales of the public being nervous at the
thought of a bioterrorist attack. The LA Times (October 10) quoted a
south Florida pharmacist as saying there was "an out-and-out panic" on
the part of consumers trying to buy antibiotics, such as Bayer's Cipro
pills. There were also reports of a number of false alarms by edgy
citizens around the US - not just in Florida - who were reporting
suspicious things that might be the next wave of bioterrorism.
While some thought the tone of reporting has been appropriate to inform
the public of potential dangers and actions that are being taken by the
government and health officials, others thought the news media may have
been a bit irresponsible in the messages it was sending to
A few reports suggested that the media inadvertently contributed to
making the public feel uneasy. USA Today (October 10) confided to
readers, "The dirty secret of the current situation is that alarmists
get the most television time and newspaper ink." The article could see
few experts who were giving informed explanations of what was going on
or a rational analysis of the risks involved.
The Detroit News (October 10) appeared to agree. "Widespread media
coverage has fanned fears," it wrote, "prompting some people to rush to
buy antibiotics, gas masks, and other paraphernalia to ward off
potential biological attacks."
A separate USA Today article (October 10) was sympathetic to the fears
of Americans, acknowledging that it is difficult to go back to business
as usual, as authorities have requested, when there is "no comfort in
watching television images of agents in biohazard suits."
Sometimes what the media doesn't say is just as important as what it
does say. Less than 25% of the coverage analyzed by CARMA informed the
public that anthrax is not a contagious disease and cannot be
transmitted from human to human. Likewise, only a few articles reported
that the chances of a widespread anthrax outbreak were highly unlikely.
Another south Florida pharmacist told The New York Times (October 10)
that the public's ignorance of this fact was playing a role in the panic
he was observing in his customers.
"They don't understand the communicability of the disease. I think the
problem is semi-uneducated panic."
With anthrax deaths occurring so infrequently, the public has little
practical knowledge of the doses, strength, and delivery devices that
could feasibly cause a bioterrorist attack. It appears the media should
go to greater lengths to provide this information, and alleviate some of
the public's fear.
Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found
Note: The analysis was carried out before news broke of further Anthrax
exposure outside of Florida.