May 28, 2009

Swine Flu Coverage around the World

In late April, news of the rapidly spreading “swine flu” swept across the American media as few sudden stories do. As the outbreak jumped from a mysterious respiratory disease in Mexico to the threat of the first global flu pandemic in four decades, the press leapt in. During the week of April 27 – May 3, the flu story, the most covered news event of the week, accounted for almost a third of mainstream media coverage, according to the News Coverage Index of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.  That marked only the second time that a health-related story had become the No. 1 story in the American media since the Project began its weekly News Index in January 2007. From tracking the spread of the virus, to analyzing government response, to asking if the story had become sensationalized by the media, the U.S. press examined seemingly every angle of the story.

How did coverage in the U.S. compare to media in other countries, both in the level of coverage and the way it was framed? How did the number of cases reported or the geographic proximity to the epicenter of the outbreak impact coverage? And, did the Spanish-language press in the U.S. treat the outbreak differently than its English-language counterparts?

Among the answers, according to a new study the Project conducted of media in different countries, is that the swine flu story got less coverage in U.S. newspapers than in some other nations’ press, at least in relation to the number of people ill in those countries. The newspaper coverage here also was broader in nature and somewhat less alarmist.

For this analysis, PEJ studied 12 days of front-page newspaper coverage in seven countries around the world (including the U.S.) and the top three Spanish-language papers in the U.S. PEJ examined the period from April 27 through May 10 (Sunday – Friday), when coverage in the United States was at its peak.

Overall, the project found news consumers around the world received varying portrayals of the outbreak, its severity, how it was affecting daily living and even the name of the flu itself. The coverage from these 12 papers revealed noticeable differences in attention, prominence and how the papers chose to frame stories.

The study found:

  • The three major U.S. papers studied offered some of the broadest coverage of the outbreak of any country studied, and all stories were staff-generated, as opposed to wire copy. Despite complaints in some quarters of excessive media hype, the level of coverage was relatively moderate when matched up against the number of confirmed U.S. cases.
  • The number of cases of swine flu in a given country had little to do with the volume of coverage around the world. China, for example, had the fewest confirmed cases of any of the countries studied (1), but the paper studied, People’s Daily, offered about as much front-page coverage as the average paper in the U.S., which had over 2000 cases.
  • In Mexico, extensive coverage by El Universal (20 front-page stories over the 12 days) cut across a broad range of issues, from the impact on businesses to the history of the virus. But the Mexican paper largely skipped any close assessment of its own government’s response.
  • The French paper Le Figaro was more restrained but also controversial in its coverage. The paper ran just two stories on the front pages, but sparked an outcry by terming the outbreak “the Mexican flu.”
  • In the Spanish-language papers in the U.S., one of the most striking findings was a heavy reliance by two of the three—El Diario and El Nuevo Herald—on U.S. wire service copy to fill their pages.

Erica Feldherr and Danielle Kurtzleben coded the Spanish Language papers. Sovini Tan coded the papers from France, New Zealand and Canada. Hong Ji Coded the Chinese Paper.