The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has published this tipsheet for responsible reporting on the swine flu, compiled by Times-Picayune health reporter John Pope.
The tips are fairly straightforward; the only one likely to raise eyebrows suggests avoiding terms such as “epidemic”.
This tips says: “Watch your language. People are already anxious, so don’t make the situation worse by using loaded words such as “epidemic.” Even though any public-health official will tell you that just a few cases constitute an epidemic, the word scares people. Use a less loaded word such as “outbreak” whenever possible.”
Personally, I think the tipsheet could have gone a bit harder on the merits of including some broader context when covering such stories, especially given the huge impact of media coverage at times like these – in exciting public alarm and diverting political and policy making focus from other pressing health issues.
This paper estimating the global toll of tobacco in coming decades gives some useful context to the current concerns about swine flu.
Under the baseline scenario, total tobacco-attributable deaths will rise from 5.4 million in 2005 to 6.4 million in 2015 and 8.3 million in 2030. Projected deaths for 2030 range from 7.4 million in the optimistic scenario to 9.7 million in the pessimistic scenario (mind you, all those projections sound rather depressing to me).
According to the baseline projection, smoking will kill 50% more people in 2015 than HIV/AIDS, and will be responsible for 10% of all deaths globally.
Now that provides some context to the current concerns about swine flu. It’s fascinating how an epidemic with predictable outcomes (millions of deaths from tobacco resulting in huge economic and social costs) doesn’t excite the same level of political or public alarm as an outbreak of infectious diseases whose consequences are unpredictable but likely to be much more modest.