Neuron Culture

Amid my guilt at not writing more on avian flu myself, I note well this typically excellent post from Effect Measure, pondering: Why so little word lately of bird flu? Its issues intersect, in a very rough way, with those raised about science journalism by Janet Stemwedel, James Hrynyshyn and Jonah Lehrer.

I won’t go here into why lousy science journalism happens. But the bird flu issue illustrates another problem in science (and other) journalism, which is the lack of coverage sometimes given to important stories. The publishing industry, particularly the newsier part, generally values novelty over importance. Given that, it’s hard to sell a story about avian flu — which is to say, get it into print or on a large-readership web site (and get paid for the time it takes to write it) — when a) the changes in the flu itself are subtle and incremental and/or b) governments are not doing much of anything to prepare for bird flu, other pandemics, or public-health crises in general. I wrote several pieces on bird flu a year or so ago, but though I remain alarmed, I’ve written little on it lately — not because I’m not interested, but because I know that after the flurry of a year ago, neither print or web publishers are interested in stories about what seem to be small changes in the flu’s movement or the failure of governments to get ready for it. They already ran plenty of those stories. It takes a new mutation, a rash of deaths, the appearance of bird flu on a new continent, or something else big to “justify” a story on it.

So that’s the barrier both freelancers and staffers face in selling (or getting space for) a story that’s important but not terribly novel.

None of this would bother me if the government were doing what it needed to do to get ready. The issue doesn’t need to be much in the media if as a society we’re ready for it. The problem with the low media coverage is that it alleviates the pressure on the government to get ready — and this is a government that lately responds only (and only sometimes) to extreme embarrassment.

Effect Measure: “”

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