Remember Bird Flu? It was due, about two years ago, to come in and kill us all. The media had us writing our wills, calling our loved ones, culling birds – they had us weeping with fear. People were genuinely scared; although humans couldn’t pass on the disease, scientists spread the word of a possible ‘mutation’ that could occur that would trigger a future human flu pandemic. While newspaper headlines worldwide conjured nightmarish images in the innocent bird-fearing public at the time, since then little has been heard about this apparently not-so-imminent plague. In fact, whilst researching for this article, few of the stories available online were more recent than early 2007. So, are we still supposed to be worrying about it? Or is no news good news?
The effect of the flu could have literally been the end of the world. Apparently the 1918 influenza pandemic, you know, the one that killed more people worldwide than the First World War, that infected a fifth of the world, was a type of bird flu. Worrying, isn’t it? Apparently we’re due a plague, just not this one. But Bird Flu is not alone – there have been other things in the news in recent years that were going to kill us…
SARS, for example, where’s that deadly virus been hiding lately – not that anyone’s looking for it, but shouldn’t we at least know? No one wants to stumble across that respiratory disease in a dark alley somewhere at night. SARS is the real deal: it killed 774 people worldwide back in 2003, it reached, according to Wikipedia, near pandemic status. So why doesn’t Trevor McDonald or John Snow or anyone really just let us know, from time to time, how SARS is doing, and whether or not we’re still at risk. Whilst we’re on the topic, remember Osama Bin Laden? I’m pretty sure he’s running a small chippy in south Wales now, I could’ve sworn he gave me too much vinegar last summer. And the Large Hadron Collider that was going to end the world? One German scientist, Professor Otto Rossler, forecast that the black holes created by the Large Hadron Collider would grow uncontrollably and “eat the planet from the inside.” I guess that hasn’t happened then. MRSA used to be quite a big deal; not any more. Foot and mouth, mad cow disease, these things didn’t really happen, they’re just rejected Hollywood storylines now.
So now that we don’t hear about them, does that mean they’re not around? Not that I want to start a conspiracy theory or anything but how do these subjects, which are so monumental and fatal at the time, just disappear from the newspapers? On a more serious note, it’s worrying really, the power of the media. Who decides which articles are worthy of front page status, and which ‘near pandemics’ to put to the back pages, and where do they get their authority? Because, genuinely, you could go crazy with that sort of power. The responsibility of a news editor is vast, they can control the fears of a nation. Some have blamed the media for hyping up economic problems recently and effectively creating or at least exacerbating the ‘credit crunch’. Their argument is, if there hadn’t been as much media attention given, people wouldn’t have panicked and our economy wouldn’t be in such a bad way. So where’s the line between spreading the news and creating unnecessary worry? Because, equally where the media can worsen a problem, it can relieve one. I haven’t heard much about SARS or bird flu lately, does that mean they’re extinct, or lying dormant somewhere waiting to pounce, or does it mean the media have bigger scares to threaten us with, for example, the weakness of the economy, because cynically, money is more important to us than health? Maybe there’s so much bad stuff happening right now the media are easing up on the old ‘end of the world’ stories at the moment. They are so last year.