MEDIA WATCH: Media further fans flames of fear over Florida anthraxcases

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

bioterrorist attack.

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.

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