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Swine Flu a Balancing Act for News Outlets

National news executives say they are satisfied with how they have covered the swine flu outbreak, despite some alarming words from national authority figures that could have ramped up the panic level—both in newsrooms and among the public.

“I'm pretty comfortable with our coverage,” says Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC's Today. “There are a lot of questions out there, and people are concerned.”

Ironically, national figures have been playing up the outbreak, not the news media itself. News executives say they have tried to show restraint despite statements like that from Richard Besser, director of the Centers for Disease Control, who said on April 28: “I fully expect that we will see deaths from this infection.”

Then on April 30, one day after a toddler died of the swine flu in Houston, Vice President Joe Biden told Today's Matt Lauer that he had advised his family not to take trains or airplanes, which drew a swift and derisive response from the travel industry. The White House was forced to clarify Biden's remarks.

When asked if Lauer should have challenged Biden's assertions, Bell responded: “He's the vice president. I don't think it's for us to amplify those remarks. The White House did, and that's fine.”

News organizations have been careful to calibrate their coverage amid the cacophony of opinions—reasoned or not. “We have been assessing it every morning at our news meetings and have been very sensitive to the fact that we didn't want to scare people unnecessarily,” says Paul Friedman, senior VP of CBS News.

While news outlets seem to be demonstrating restraint, independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall wonders if some of them aren't following the government's lead a little too willingly.

“What we've seen is less the journalistic decision of TV news to make this a big story, and more the opportunistic exploitation of the fact that TV news exists by the public relations apparatus of the public health bureaucracy,” Tyndall says. “The coverage has been because of the facility of TV news, not because of their activity. They've allowed themselves to be used as a conduit by people with another agenda.”

But CBS' Friedman says it's a tough balancing act with the fear-mongering quotes coming out of government agencies.

“It's not an easy balancing act for anyone, because on the one hand you want to point out repeatedly as we [have done] that 36,000 people die each year from [typical flu strains],” he says. “The danger, of course, is that you can't not cover a dramatic story like the one in Mexico. And so it's hard and I must say, putting Vice President Biden apart, it does not help when one of the main government spokesmen says, 'I expect unfortunately there will be deaths' without going on to say, 'as there would be in any flu epidemic.' So, that puts us in a situation of using a sound bite from the principal spokesman from the government that really is more, in my view, potentially frightening than it needs to be.”

Stations Call the Doctor

The Houston market emerged as the swine flu's ground zero in America following the death of the Mexican toddler. KHOU relied on three doctors from Houston's huge medical community to answer viewers' questions, both online and on-air. “The story has become very local and very personal,” says KHOU Executive News Director Keith Connors. “Everybody has questions.”

Stations that still have medical doctors on the payroll after all the downsizing in the past year made ample use of them. WTVT Tampa has Dr. Joette Giovinco breaking down the basics of swine flu for viewers, and offering tips on staving off the virus. “Having a medical doctor on staff is a huge benefit for viewers,” says VP/News Director Mike McClain. “It allows us to report with a level of expertise that we think sets us apart.”

Across town, WFLA was covering the story without health reporter Irene Maher, whose contract was not renewed last July. Maher suggests that managing the coverage may have been easier for WFLA with her 23 years of health reporting on the set, but News Director Don North says the Media General station, which shares a newsroom with the Tampa Tribune, had the story blanketed: “We have an enormous amount of reporter resources here.”

With Michael Malone