It’s the end of the calendar year and the traditional time the media looks back on “the biggest stories of the year.” There are websites about almost any subject (even one on a particular model of running shoe, I am told), but those of us who write specialized blogs (as opposed to ones about politics or current events) rarely expect our subject matter to show up on one of those lists. We’ve been writing about flu for over five years, here, and while re recognized the possibility our subject would come into vogue — that’s indeed why we were writing about it — it still took us and everyone else by surprise.
Now, just about everyone’s choice as one of the top flu reporters in the world, Helen Branswell of Canadian Press, confirms that for Canada, and likely for the US and much of Europe as well, the swine flu pandemic was the newsroom choice for biggest story:
The H1N1 virus was chosen by 70 per cent of the newspaper editors and broadcast news directors in the annual year-end survey of newsrooms conducted by The Canadian Press.
“There isn’t a Canadian out there who isn’t affected by or interested in the virus and how it may affect their families,” said Sandy Heimlich-Hall, assistant news director at CFJC-TV in Kamloops, B.C.
“It was a coast-to-coast story that people followed with interest no matter where they lived in Canada,” agreed Lesley Sheppard, managing editor of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, in Moose Jaw, Sask. (Helen Branswell, Canadian Press)
Even Branswell’s news story about news stories is full of information. She quotes the naysayers to good effect . . .
“The H1N1 flu scare is almost more famous for the way it was handled by the media than how it spread wildly across the country,” said Victor Krasowski, news director of radio station CJUK in Thunder Bay, Ont.
Rocco Frangione, Krasowski’s counterpart at CFXN Radio in North Bay, Ont., agreed H1N1 was more hype than threat.
“The way health organizations spun this issue, I expected people to be falling dead in the street,” Frangione said. “It didn’t happen and once again the so-called experts got it wrong when it comes to a new virus hitting people.”
. . . going on to point out that as the story was unfolding it was impossible for anyone to know where it was heading. Maybe the most frightening part of the flu story is that there really are news directors like Krasowski and Frangione who have control over what the public hears. Their kind of understanding of the year’s biggest news story is so unsophisticated one only expects to hear it discussed this way casually around the water cooler by people whose lives are taken up with the daily struggle of trying to get by and who don’t pay attention to the news at all — not by people whose job it is to understand the news as part of their own daily struggle to get by.
I have a vivid recollection of the opening days of this pandemic and the sense of uncertainty — indeed the knowledge from past experience that with the given set of facts before us, just about anything could happen. Branswell quotes Nancy Cox, CDC’s flu chief, as saying, “I think this is one of those situations where everyone will want to stay tuned.”
And stay tuned we did. Like the opening engagements in a war, it was unclear what was happening. The media were confused and that made the public confused and all for a good reason: the scientists were also confused. With new tools of analysis and information being communicated at a speed unprecedented in any previous influenza pandemic (the last was 41 years earlier and there was no internet), we were watching a pandemic unfold in real time but still not clear what we were seeing. It was clear from the outset the epidemiology was quite unlike seasonal influenza, but we still didn’t know how the virus was going to behave clinically. Was it about as virulent as “regular” flu? Much more virulent, like a 1918 flu? More benign? We didn’t even have a good way to count the cases or estimate the virulence. Some of this was inherent in the disease and some of it was the result of systematic disinvestment in public health. Either way, the uncertainty of a breaking pandemic was every bit as confusing as the classical “fog of war.”
The current narrative, visible in Branswell’s story, is that modern medicine has mitigated what could have been a much worse experience. I’m not so sure and we won’t know for at least a year or two when we can assemble the available data in a form that allows us to make more sense of it. And the story isn’t over, only the 2009 calendar year part of it. What will early 2010 bring? We’ll let Branswell’s reporting of the views of WHO’s top flu scientist, Keiji Fukuda, have the last word:
“I can’t count the number of times that I have said, ‘We cannot predict what’s going to happen in the future. It could go this way, it could go that way,”‘ said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the global health agency’s special adviser on pandemic influenza.
“But our job is to try to make sure that whatever direction events take place, the fewest people are harmed. That’s our business. That’s what we try to do.”
Fukuda suggested armchair quarterbacks who now insist that it was clear months ago that H1N1 wasn’t a real threat don’t know influenza.
“It is not true. And in fact, it’s still not true,” he insisted.
“One of the questions which one can pose is, in February or March or January, is the continent of North America likely to see another wave? And the answer is: Nobody knows.”
Fukuda continued: “And in that time period, is it possible that the virus would make some kind of change and things would get more severe? The answer is: It is possible. Would it happen? Nobody knows. And that remains as true now as it was in April when things were first starting.”
I doubt they are reading Helen Branswell in those two [small town radio] news rooms in
Ottawa Ontario. It might make them too informed.