Spin-a-flu: a media panic with economic implications

Vladimir Kremlev for RT
Swine flu is advancing on us from Mexico. The Mexican government has already pronounced the epidemic as being contained.

The media is continuing to spread fear in some parts of the world, and deep concern in others.

A global pandemic is one of the most ancient fears, and therefore, one of the most persistent. It came with the plague which swept through Europe several times in the Middle Ages, killing millions. The European tradition, processed and transformed by the decades of Pax Americana, is the core of the globalizing world’s culture, therefore the fear, every time it arises, becomes global very quickly.

It is not yet clear, how dangerous this mix of pig, bird, and human flu is for mankind. Most probably it is very dangerous – that is, if the flu can spread from human to human through the air as most known respiratory infections do. But so far there is no scientific proof. There are secondary cases, but experts say that they are much milder than those caused by direct contact with contaminated pigs.

However, any flu has an ability to mutate, so the danger of a pandemic remains high. That is the real matter of concern for national health institutions. For the general public, the problem is still far from real, and taking into consideration the latest developments, it may even turn out to be another instance of exaggerated fear. Still, there’s no end in sight to the media campaign.


Vladimir Kremlev for RT (click to enlarge)
How can that happen? Why does media coverage live its own life, separate from the supposed pandemic in the making, and present things more deadly than they really are? A conspiracy theorist would immediately suggest spin. Indeed, all the signs are here. Except one: usually, weaponized media spin is controlled from one or more centers and its fluctuations, its periods of lower and higher activity, follow a certain plan.

With the coverage of would-be global pandemics, it’s different: there’s no strict plan, and there’s no need (in most cases) for it: the idea of a looming global pandemic is so hot that the slightest hint of it causes an avalanche of articles, TV and radio news coverage, and internet discussions.

Modern international communications are in this sense both our weak point and our blessing: there’s no way we can be totally unprepared for a real pandemic (it is not a tsunami, it doesn’t have a speed of 500 km per hour), but we are totally defenseless against poor journalistic homework, ‘dramatization’ of news reports, and spin for the sake of spin – a dubious activity which often brings a short moment of fame to the author, but is forgotten ten minutes after having been broadcast.

An exotic flu also invokes the usual human fear of the unknown. Statistically during an epidemic, regular human flu kills more people in a week than avian flu has killed in the whole period of its existence. And avian flu was and continues to be seen as one of the biggest dangers for mankind: the media are on constant alert for its signs.

On the other hand, an exotic flu is capable of inflicting much more damage to the economy than the regular one, and it is only capable of doing that because of the media attention. Once again, the conspiracy theorist in most of us would say: 'look at the losses caused to British farmers by the ‘mad cow disease,’ and what it did for agricultural protectionism in Europe,' or 'remember how avian flu paralyzed poultry exports from Southeast Asia and China, and what American and European exporters gained by temporarily filling the gap in the markets of Japan, South Korea, and Russia.'

That conspiracy theorist may be right. I do not have proof of that, but as a newswire correspondent in Thailand, I once encountered a very clear case of dirty spin which had a direct effect on Thailand’s tourism industry.

In 2004, during the second wave of bird flu in Thailand, I was asked to help put together a television report on the bird flu epidemic by one of the leading Russian TV channels. When the correspondent, cameraman, and sound man arrived in Bangkok, I picked them up and took them on a trip around the nearest provinces in search of footage and stories.

We gained access to one of the farms belonging to the Saha group, one of the leading chicken meat exporters. The management was eager for publicity, in a few days a commission from Japan was supposed to come to inspect the farm in order to decide about re-opening its business with Saha. So, thoroughly disinfected, we entered the premises with a carte blanche to shoot whatever we wanted.

Later, in Pattaya, in a very clean Russian restaurant run by a very strict lady, a retired professor of chemistry, we interviewed the chef, who said that fifteen years before, a Russian chef named Nikolai had taught him to make Chicken a-la Kiev, and that his family had been living on his income of a Russian cook ever since.

In the program that was aired several days later, a dirty sector of the Saha Farm’s truck parking (the only place on the premises where dirt could be seen, and totally isolated from the sectors where the chicken was held) was shown with a commentary saying that such is the state of affairs at Thai poultry farms suffering from the epidemic. The chef at the Pattaya restaurant was saying his piece about Chicken Kiev in Thai while the translation into Russian ran as follows: ‘I am afraid to touch chicken meat, I am afraid to get sick. But the restaurant owner forces me to make these Chicken Kievs, a few dozen of them every day! I’m risking my life here!’

If I hadn’t been there and heard the whole of the chef’s speech (I had translated the whole piece myself from Thai into Russian), I would have believed the picture of doom and gloom drawn by the correspondent who used the material in such a creative manner. Later, I noticed that several other channels in Russia were drawing the same gloomy picture of Thailand affected by the bird flu. At the same time, the advertisement of tours to Egypt and Turkey on Russian TV doubled…

Hopefully, the current outbreak of swine flu is indeed over. The fears related to it will slowly melt, replaced by new stories every day. But it just occurred to me what may become of an ultimate exotic flu scare: imagine that some day here comes a flu common for people, cats, and dogs… ‘Flu-ing’ swine today, it may ‘flu’ cats and dogs tomorrow. What kind of spin may emerge out of that, we can only guess.

Evgeny Belenkiy, RT.