Whatever happened to responsible journalism?
I am a firm believer in freedom of the press as a vital part of our democracy. But with that freedom comes responsibility. Round-the-clock news services competing for ratings and, in the end, money, has turned press coverage into a blitz of shock and awe reporting. It seems like you can't turn on the TV anymore that major network news segments don't look like a clip taken from "Night of the Living Dead."
Last month's H1N1 virus scare is a prime example. While the agricultural media got the story right, mainstream news outlets did a huge disservice to the public and especially hog producers by sensationalizing what otherwise should have been a fairly benign issue in the U.S.
Adlai Stevenson once said, "An editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and then prints the chaff." Nowadays, news media tend to separate what is real from the hype and then print the hype.
Consumers need real, straight-forward information, not hyped up sensationalism.
By refusing to even use the proper terminology of "H1N1," instead of "swine flu," major networks and even smaller stations and papers around the nation only fueled an already inflamed situation.
For hog producers, the impact was devastating. The first two weeks of the H1N1 scare cost America's hog farmers more than $39 million in reduced sales. This came at a time when hog producers were already losing money. Analysts say hog farmers, since September 2007, have lost half of the profits they accumulated over the previous 17 years. Lenders are reassessing whether to continue financing some operations and many producers will face tough decisions about whether or not to close shop following the H1N1 panic.
I'm not trying to diminish the H1N1 virus. Many people in Mexico perished, as well as several people in the U.S. But, we need to look at the facts. Seasonal flu kills on average 36,000 Americans per year, yet you don't hear the media reporting that. Further, most media outlets were reporting gloom and doom scenarios about H1N1 before the facts were even known. When repeatedly asked to stop referring to the virus as swine flu because of the unnecessary harm it was inflicting upon the industry, most news outlets declined.
Also, did I mention it was a television "sweeps week?"
The H1N1 scare ransacked people's everyday lives, from lining up at the emergency room for a common cold to canceling travel plans to worrying about the ham sandwich someone's child just ate, even though you can't contract H1N1 from eating pork. Unfortunately, as it was perpetuated by the media, it put hog producers' livelihoods at stake.
The news media has a basic responsibility to help strengthen and support the democratic process. Using scare propaganda to attract viewers and readership is not only disconcerting, it's bad journalism.
Bob Stallman is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.