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Swine Flu a Balancing Act for TV 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," said Jim Bell, executive producer of NBC's Today. "There are a lot of questions out there and people are concerned."

News executives say they have tried to show restraint despite statements like that from director of the Centers for Disease Control Richard Besser, who last Tuesday said: "I fully expect that we will see deaths from this infection."

Then on Thursday, 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 response from the travel industry.

Biden's office later issued a statement saying in part that he was advising Americans to "avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico."

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 say they 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," said Paul Freidman, Senior VP, CBS News.

But independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall wonders if some news outlets aren't following the government's lead a little too willingly--and suggests that the coverage indicates a too-cozy relationship at work in health reporting.

"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 fact that CDC director Besser was once a health reporter certainly explains his comfort with the media. There have been guided tours of the CDC's operations and frequent press conferences presided over by the telegenic doctor.

"The coverage has been because of the facility of TV news, not because of their activity," adds Tyndall. "They've allowed themselves to be used as a conduit by people with another agenda."

But CBS's Freidman says it's a tough balancing act given the alarming statements 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]," said Freidman. "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 spokesman says I expect this to continue to spread and 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."

Local Stations Call The Doctor

With cases both suspected and confirmed popping up around the country, swine flu was very much a local-news story. Houston emerged as the flu's ground zero in America, with the Mexican toddler dying at Texas Children's Hospital in the market. Houston stations did double duty late last week, covering both the flu and massive flooding. 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. For WTVT Tampa, that meant 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 and 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 in July. Maher suggests managing the coverage may have been easier for WFLA with her 23 years of health reporting on the set, but News Director Don North said 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," he says.