MEDIA WATCH: With war in Iraq winding down, media shifts its focus to SARS

The war in Iraq has dominated the US media's attention for more than a month now, overshadowing the emergence in China of a deadly new virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Earlier this month, a New York Times editorial (April 3) suggested, "If the nation were not distracted by war, people would certainly be obsessing about SARS, the mysterious respiratory illness that has triggered a global health alert."

The war in Iraq has dominated the US media's attention for more than a month now, overshadowing the emergence in China of a deadly new virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Earlier this month, a New York Times editorial (April 3) suggested, "If the nation were not distracted by war, people would certainly be obsessing about SARS, the mysterious respiratory illness that has triggered a global health alert."

Now that the war is effectively over, it looks like the Times' prediction has come true. Media Watch analyzed a sampling of editorials and op-eds in newspapers around the US to assess their thoughts on the SARS outbreak from a number of different angles - health, social, historical, economic, and political. First and foremost, the media highlighted the fact that SARS is highly contagious, with approximately 3,000 worldwide cases reported thus far. Although SARS is a new virus that had never been encountered, there were frequent comparisons to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 that killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide. With that comparison in mind, numerous reports noted that modern air travel makes this virus potentially more dangerous, capable of spreading around the world much more quickly. A Washington Post editorial (April 2) expressed how SARS "is very much a disease linked to the technology of this particular historical moment." With widespread reporting on the potential for so much danger, a Boston Herald editorial (April 8) observed how the media has contributed to frightening the public: "Fear of the unknown and the glare of the media spotlight have unnecessarily magnified fears of contracting SARS." There were many reports indicating how international airline routes have been cancelled, business trips postponed, and tourism impacted by the fear of spreading SARS. Several of the reports tried to provide some context, telling readers that the number of cases in the US was a small fraction of the global total, and that there have been no SARS-related deaths in the US. There was also criticism of the Chinese government for minimizing the seriousness of the outbreak and for allowing it to spread by manipulating the local and global media, downplaying the impact of the virus, and indicating that all was under control. A Times-Picayune editorial (April 9) chastised China for being "slow to recognize the new illness and slow to alert the World Health Organization (WHO). Their reticence likely hastened the spread of the disease." Mixed in with the criticism were a few reports calling for China to back down from its refusal to recognize Taiwan. Because Taiwan isn't a WHO member, there were delays between Taiwan's reporting of the SARS outbreak and the WHO's response. Finally, the outbreak of such a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease prompted a number of calls for increased funding of laboratories to combat viruses. Some reports positioned such calls as complements to the current push to protect America from bioterrorism, suggesting that the outbreak could have just as easily been the work of terrorists. Because the virus is new, a number of questions remained unanswered. However, there are indications that the media is both fanning the flames of fear while also trying to put things in perspective. -----
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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