The flu, zombies, and the national media

First Posted: 5/2/2009

I have what most people call a rather dark sense of humor, sometimes even if the joke is only in my head. Ill give you an example for the past several days, as media reports of the swine/not really swine flu have circulated, the old REM song Its the End of the World as we Know It keeps going around in my head.
Of course, I dont really believe that, but its kinda funny, I think. This whole episode reminds me of the 1993 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in Asia.
At that time I was doing some weekend editing work at a newspaper and I was often partnered up with a young copy editor who was really, really eager to do his work and climb up the newspaper ladder, but he also was a little, shall I say, high strung.
One night he was having a bit of a sneezing fit, and while I was putting together a page I casually mentioned one of the SARS articles mentioned the first sign of the disease was repeated sneezing. Then when he began coughing, I told him I was concerned, because I had just googled SARS symptoms, and it said a harsh, hacking cough was one of the tell-tale symptoms.
Of course, I was making it all up but for just a few minutes I think he was convinced he was the first North American case of the disease.
Now, let me say very clearly I dont think theres anything funny about diseases. There are people suffering, and families with tremendous senses of loss that they will never fully get over after losing someone like this.
What I do find funny is the near sense of panic in the tone of mainline media reporting. Especially here in the United States.
I tend to read and listen a bit to the BBC, and though that news organization has its faults, its generally regarded as one of the most responsible, and reliable, news agencies in Europe.
Take, for instance, these two story leads that were released a couple of days ago. The first is from a BBC report.
The EU’s health commissioner has urged Europeans not to panic over swine flu, as ministers hold emergency talks on ways to contain the virus.
“We have to exercise vigilance, we should not panic, we have to be prepared,” Androulla Vassiliou said.
The ministers are discussing a possible EU-wide travel advisory for Mexico.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised its pandemic alert to five, the second-highest level, but says it has no immediate plans for another rise.
Now, look at a news report by the Associated Press which was widely disseminated among the United States media, from the same event.
WASHINGTON The Geneva-based World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its alert level for the fast-spreading swine flu to its next-to-highest notch, signaling a global pandemic could be imminent.
The move came after the virus spread to at least 10 U.S. states from coast to coast and swept deeper into Europe.
“It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic,” said WHO Director General Margaret Chan. “We do not have all the answers right now but we will get them.”
Chan went on to say the extinction of the dinosaurs was nothing compared to what awaits humanity. By July 4, the only people who will be left to celebrate Americas Independence Day will be the astronauts in the international space station.
Okay, that last paragraph was my creation, Chan didnt really say that. But, the way the story started he might as well have.
I guess as a member of the media I shouldnt be too hard on my colleagues, but sometimes the folks covering the national and international news go overboard. At that level its all about television ratings and readership numbers and when one news organization goes a step further in its reporting all the others follow just to keep up, ethical or not.
I suppose thats just human nature. In my spare time all five minutes that I have each day between being an editor and a father to five I do a little fiction writing. Mostly horror and dark fantasy. Ive put together stories on vampires and zombies, little birds that come and steal your children, and bill collectors who take a lot more than your home or your money.
Through the years Ive noticed even in the small press that herding mentality whenever something is trendy, everyone, and I mean everyone, writes the same thing. When vampires are popular, everyone is writing about vampires. When zombies are hot, everyone has a zombie tale. If I were a betting man Id lay my next three paychecks on the idea that small press magazines will now be inundated with end of the world stories, complete with a rampant virus that was the result of some experiment gone awry, some hair-brained attempted by an evil person to take over the world, or because some alien culture wants to rid the planet of people so they can move in and set up shop.
I doubt Ill try writing any such stories, though, for a few reasons. First, it doesnt really interest me, and when I write fiction I tend to want to do what captures my fancy, as opposed to whats popular.
Second, such stories have to be grounded in some scientific reality. Sometimes thats great for a writer, but other times it can be a little confining. Writing about vampires and zombies and evil little birds and even eviler bill collectors gives a writer some freedom to make it up as he goes since those things dont really exist (although Im told there might actually be some soul-snatching bill collectors out there).
And third, Im just not sure anyone can make up a story that can compete with the oft-times sensationalist, sometimes fiction a few members of the national media seem to be producing on this subject.
John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 336-719-1931.

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