May 28, 2009

Swine Flu Coverage around the World

U.S.English Language Print

What might have seemed like blanket coverage from the U.S. press during those early two weeks of the outbreak was relatively restrained when compared with papers in other countries, at least by one measure. Looking at the number of front page stories and the total number of confirmed cases by May 10 (the last day of the study), U.S. English-language newspapers have the lowest ratio of articles to confirmed cases of any country studied and also compared with the Spanish-language press in the states.  With 2,254 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization , the U.S. papers studied averaged 10 front page articles each—a ratio of one story for every 225 cases.

The subject matter of the swine flu coverage in the U.S. press also was broader than most other countries (and was all staff written rather than produced by wire services or other sources). Front-page topic areas included the epidemiology of the pandemic (6 stories), the government’s reaction to the outbreak (6 stories), accounts of the virus’ spread (4 stories) and the reaction of health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (4 stories).

The U.S. storyline in many ways reflected the fast-moving trajectory of events in that two-week period.  In the early days of the outbreak, the three major U.S. dailies  reported on the U.S. government’s response and chronicled the spread and severity of the virus with headlines such as “Confirmed Cases Double in U.S.; Europe Cites It’s 1st” and “U.S. Declares Health Emergency As Cases of Swine Flu Emerge.” But as it became clear the threat was not as deadly as originally anticipated in the U.S., the papers moved into more enterprise reporting on the situation in Mexico, the epidemiology of the virus and analyses of the international response. A Washington Post piece on May 3, for example, explained how scientists traced the epidemiology of the virus. On May 5, the Los Angeles Times ran an article that showed how a “crusading” Mexican newspaper dressed its reporters up as paramedics to uncover the first deadly case of the swine flu, “forcing the health officials to go public on April 16—a full week before a national emergency was declared over swine flu—with news of a deadly ’atypical pneumonia.’”