What is the Right Amount of Swine Flu Coverage?

Dr. Hans Rosling (Gapminder) has posted a short, but effective video comparing the coverage of Swine Flu to a more constant killer like Tuberculosis. He decries the fact that Swine flu has generated many orders of magnitude more coverage per death than Tuberculosis.

tuberculosis WHO data

Dr. Rosling has a point. The media could be said to be disproportionately covering Swine Flu. However, how can the media not be expected to cover Swine Flu? It is new. It is spreading quickly. It is something that will potentially impact the daily lives of their readers (and themselves). Tuberculosis, while on the rise (see the chart to the right), is a known, is relatively contained and there is a vaccine.

Which should the media focus on? Which would you expect them to? While the media coverage maybe overblown (and I questioned putting this post up at all) I think it is understandable to want to track this potential new threat closely.

[Tuberculosis Growth Chart via Wikipedia]

[via Information Aesthetics]


I realized that this post was incomplete without checking some trend data to see how people’s interest compare. Here’s the Wikirank comparison chart:

wikirank swine flu tb

And the Google Trends comparison:

gogole trends h1n1, swine flu tb

For “fun” I included H1N1 to see if the name change was working. Based on search volume it does not seem to have been effective use of re-marketing dollars.

It’s clear that the news is driving a lot of interest in Swine Flu and that there is very little residual interest in Tuberculosis. Whether this is the tail wagging the dog remains to be seen.

  • This seems more about Rossler using his data visualizations than about real issues. Of course the media cycle is inane – it jumps on every dumb thing to catch the public’s attention. But, as Rossler acknowledges, suppose Swine Flu turned out to be as bad at the 1918 epidemic – the death toll would be enormous compared to relatively stable TB. Amidst all the hype and misinformation, there was plenty of good advice from WHO and CDC, promulgated in the news and blogs that probably helped to keep (we hope) the epidemic in check and let it burn out quickly.

    What might have been better use of the media would have been old-fashioned public service announcements – 10 minutes of explaining the issue and what people could do to limit the spread. But in a fragmented media world (I no longer watch tv and rarely listen to radio) how would they deliver these announcements and be sure the message propagated through the population to be effective?

  • The media reporting is just a reflection of general population interest. In other words: they report on what helps sell more “papers”.

    The problem with media coverage in general, is that they try to focus in a single (or few) stories at a time because that’s how much we can keep fresh on our minds, otherwise, how do you explain Natalie Holloway, Swine Flu and Caylee?

  • Parallels with Bruce Schneier’s writings about security theatre and actual threat versus perceived threat.

    Sadly, that seems to be how the media works; it’s a jackdaw. Oh look, a new shiny thing.

  • The media reporting has been a part of the *cause* of this flu outbreak being relatively anticlimactic. While the TB deaths are tragic, and call for some sort of response, it is not the sort of response that can be organized by news. Whereas H1N1 is controllable by basic public health measures like hand-washing, tuberculosis needs deep policy and professional efforts.

  • This is always the case with the media. The poor (and their deaths) never make news. The sensational (and the affluent) does!

    Take the case of the tsunami, and compare the deaths caused by it, to the number of people dying out of poverty each day. On our planet. The comparison is even more shocking!

    I’ve been in the media for 25 years, and have no way but to accept that this is the bizarre and lop-sided logic of the media all over. Even within the South (see the big blue dots, and where they came from… South Asia and Africa!) there are gaps. And the power equations play out themselves there too!

    And btw, everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten malaria, another huge killer for many of us.

  • Interesting discussion, Brady.

    IMO, one of the most interesting stories is the resistance of H1N1 to Tamiflu. The excellent blogger David Bradley (@sciencebase) noted one of his 2006 blog entries on twitter today: http://twitter.com/sciencebase/statuses/1763653525 :

    sciencebase: Tamiflu threat in wake of swine flu pandemic – http://bit.ly/14ajC2 (from 2006!)

    David’s 2006 blog entry notes the risk of unleashing the waste from Tamiflu treatments into the environment and the risk that this could pose to the effectiveness of Tamiflu in future epidemics. That has come to pass. 98% of H1N1 strains are resistant to Tamiflu; we may well have squandered one of our biggest tools against future flu viruses.

  • Dan S

    The news exists to sell advertising dollars or, in the case of The Beeb and the like, assert ratings and relevance to some government committee.

    Just like other media they do this by selling compelling content. To be able to get away with their distinctive nasty, anxiety-inducing content, they need to claim that it’s not entertainment, but somehow in a category of their own, that they’re doing us good by “reporting”, both to regulators and to the people who would otherwise realise that most which news they consume harms them.

    As the purpose of the news is /to be seen to be/ reporting fairly and responsibly, ie to put on a serious face, not to actually do it, their criteria for success are based on perception of relevance by their viewers, not by anything like number of deaths.

    The public information argument is spurious. You ask people who consume hours of news a week what they learnt from extensive consumption, it could easily be covered by half a side of A4 pasted to the wall.

    I don’t see how any of this is news to anyone.