Dan Gainor

It seems like the end of the world. A deadly virus is sweeping across the globe killing off young and old alike. Media coverage goes round the clock dwelling on the danger. Sounds like the plot for a movie – Stephen King’s “The Stand” or maybe Will Smith’s “I Am Legend.” It’s also the media plot for the avian flu scare of 2006 that went nowhere.

Like most people, you have probably already forgotten. The media gave the danger tons of news coverage and ABC even delivered a cheesy made-for-TV apocalypse movie. Then … not much happened. The World Health Organization reports there have been 257 deaths from avian flu – worldwide. Less than 100 of those have come in the last two-plus years (2007-2009). But the media never looked at the symptoms of their own coverage to find out what was wrong.

This time, the threat might be real. U.S. officials have declared a public health emergency over the swine flu and international officials are warning this could become a pandemic. The virus has already spread to Europe and there are more than 100 dead just in Mexico.

But maybe the easiest way to tell that we should take this incident seriously is that the media never had a chance to pre-hype what might happen. So now, their round-the-clock response is, at least, driven by some actual events.

Avian flu was the ideal news story – one journalists love. It was a looming threat and it loomed so long you could write countless stories about it – complete with lots of on-location video, colorful graphics and expert commentary. It wasn’t just a news story in slow motion. It was a news story that never went anywhere at all. Every death is a tragedy, but put those 257 deaths in perspective. According to the centers for Disease Control, 36,000 Americans die each year just from flu. That’s less than one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the total flu deaths. And 257 are the total number for a global population of 6.5 billion.

In other words, avian flu was more the threat of a threat – and those are easy to hype. Ask ABC. In March 2006, ABC brought the apocalypse into our living rooms. The “news” network highlighted a doctor who predicted “that 50% of the population could die” because of bird flu.

Dan Gainor

Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.