< Stop, Drop and Roll


Friday, May 01, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week’s coverage of swine flu, or, as we've been instructed to call it now, the H1N1 virus, was pretty scary, especially on cable. And this oft-played sound bite from World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan certainly didn't help.

MARGARET CHAN: It really is all of humanity that is under threat.

BOB GARFIELD: Here’s how CNN’s Rick Sanchez responded to that:

RICK SANCHEZ: It really doesn’t get more serious than that now, does it? If you inhabit Earth, you are in danger of being infected.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some newspapers tried to put the stage-five imminent pandemic in perspective. A headline from Thursday’s L.A. Times read, “Scientists see this flu strain as relatively mild.” But according to NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, reporters simply can't resist a panic story. Klinenberg has written about past disasters, most notably in his 2002 book, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. He’s been getting calls from reporters this week asking him to talk about the widespread panic in response to H1N1. The only problem – there is no widespread panic. Tell that to the ABCNews.com reporter who contacted him.

ERIC KLINENBERG: The email said that they're looking for someone who could talk about the way the public reacts in panics. And then she goes on, think fallout shelters, anthrax scares and buying duct tape before the Iraq War. [BROOKE LAUGHS] She just wants someone quotable who can give me a behavioral perspective on all this.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what’s wrong with that?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, the problem is, if there’s one finding that’s consistent in the sociology of disasters over the last, say, five decades, it’s when there are crises, people don't panic. And yet no matter how hard we try to make this point, we always get emails and phone calls along these lines. So I immediately responded in an email and said, look, I'd be more than happy to speak with you, but here’s the thing. It turns out that sociology of disaster mostly tells us that people don't panic, in general. And furthermore, if we look specifically at what’s happening here in New York City, I don't see any signs of panic. I walk to work and haven't seen a single person wearing a mask at this point, no violence, no screaming, no people keeping their kids home from school en masse. And I said, look, even, at Mexico City. I'm seeing images of people who are being cautious, far more people wearing masks, but the scenes from the streets that we've seen in the news, at least, don't suggest that there’s panic.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, that sounds like a sober-sided corrective. How did the story come out?

ERIC KLINENBERG: The headline of the piece is, Swine Flu Snafu: Ernst & Young Episode Reveals Pandemic Panic. And then the kind of lead story is that there was a case where one worker at Ernst & Young went home sick and many people were concerned that that worker had developed swine flu. But then they later verified that it was not a case of swine flu. So -

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sounds terrifying.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Yeah. [BROOKE LAUGHS] I mean, there’s just no [LAUGHS] – exactly. I mean, there’s no evidence even in the lead anecdote for what became a five-page story about panic in the United States. The best they could do was a story where there doesn't seem to be any panic whatsoever. But then I really got concerned as I started to leaf through the site, because it turns out they have these images, kind of like collages, and the things we see include a mushroom cloud, a large man in a Hazmat suit. We see a scientist who seems to be working through samples, a giant pig snout, and then an insect of some kind. As a sociologist [BROOKE LAUGHS] I hesitate to say what kind of insect it is, but it looks very scary. It also seems to have nothing to do with the pandemic flu situation that we might be entering into. Another very disturbing thing for me about this experience I had with the reporter is that, of course, my response to her was, the concept you have on panic might not fit in this case so we should be cautious. And my note became the cautionary part of the story told on page five of the five-page report. The most puzzling part of it was the section title was Not Enough Panic?

[LAUGHTER] Maybe we should be freaking out right now.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, part of this probably has to do with the 24-hour news cycle. We know that unless we promote something as being of enormous importance then you can't keep people in their seats tuned to that channel. I mean, that’s so obvious it’s a cliché.

ERIC KLINENBERG: That’s true, but to what length are we willing to go to get that kind of attention? So, for instance, I started following the news more closely than I normally do these past few days, and CNN reported that tens of millions of people could possibly die if this flu outbreak is uncontained. There was a clip I saw of a CNN political reporter at a White House press conference with the Department of Homeland Security personnel at which he pressed over and over again, are there any signs that this flu outbreak is a consequence of a bioterrorist attack? And the Department of Homeland Security representative said, there’s no evidence of that whatsoever. This seems to be completely natural. So she pushed again and said, but you can't rule it out, can you? [BROOKE LAUGHS] And then later in her report, she said, well, the DHS is denying that this is a bioterrorist attack but it’s still very early in the story and we don't know what there is to know. So there’s just no clear reason for us to be thinking about bioterrorism at a moment like this. There certainly isn't reason to be concerned about a mushroom cloud.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you would say that there are lots of examples of widespread scaremongering or is it focused on certain news outlets?

ERIC KLINENBERG: Well, my favorite story, in fact, involves The New York Daily News, which sent one of their reporters around the streets of Manhattan in a surgical mask and they had him cough to see what kind of attention he would whip up. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And, of course, lots of people looked and thought, this is a weird thing. But the best part of the story is that there was a British TV crew that had come the United States to capture how Americans were responding to this enormous outbreak of swine flu, and they stopped the guy and said they wanted to film him. So here – [BROOKE LAUGHS] – this is a defining moment of a media event. It should be taught in media studies courses for eternity. You get the reporter who becomes the symbol of how Americans are acting, even though no one else on the streets is doing this.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But don't you also see a lot of reporters saying, don't panic?

ERIC KLINENBERG: You do, and I think many responsible reporters are trying to figure out how you walk this line between reporting on what is clearly a story that deserves our attention and real concern and reporting in such a way that it becomes sensationalist and scaremongering. Now, there are many good ways to do this, but, clearly, warning that tens of millions of people could die and giving us images of a nuclear holocaust on a website is not the way to go.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric, thank you very much.

ERIC KLINENBERG: Great to be here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University and author of Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media.