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December 05, 2003

Adventures in Journalism: Disease of the Week

It's the flu, in case you didn't already know, having been rendered blind, deaf and dumb over the past week, then miraculously cured after a relative led you to our little site here, the Lourdes of the Internet.

The rest of you, like me, have been swamped in influenza reportage. I suspect the 24 hours news cycle is behind the surge in scary disease reports over the past few years. Diseases are great fodder for a constant news cycle--someone, somewhere always has something, and there's always an expert on that particular disease just panting to whip up a nice froth for the public on how dangerous his particular germ is.

We might eventually stop referring to Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter altogether, instead speaking of the annual progression as the Lyme Disease, West Nile, Flu and SARS seasons.

Yes, this year the flu looks like it might be worse than normal. From the coverage, though, one might be forgiven for thinking it 1919 all over again.

Extensive coverage means that everybody and his cub reporter are writing flu stories, even when they have--not only no knowledge of the subject, but no knowledge of where to go to gain that knowledge. Take, for instance, this story accredited to "MSNBC Staff and Wire Reports".

 Health officials are encouraging people to get a flu shot. This year’s vaccine formula doesn’t exactly match the flu virus now circulating, but the vaccine will still help prevent the flu and mitigate its complications, CDC officials say. The Fujian strain - which originated in Fujian province, China - is an H3 virus, a category that is more virulent than normal. It was not known when this year’s flu vaccine was developed. (emphasis mine)

Dude(s), someone knows when it was manufactured. It's your job to find out. Are flu vaccines not so much manufactured as they are conjured up out of thin air, presumably by the influenza fairies?

The intellectual laziness evident in the "not known" line is annoying enough, but what's worse is that at the end of the article MSNBC links to a story, Drug makers try to fight flu outbreak, that would have gone a long way towards relieving the reportorial ignorace if someone had bothered to read it.

“The capacity of those two manufacturers and really everyone is completely and utterly restrained by the fact you have to make this in chicken eggs, and you order those in the spring of the year before,” West said, whose firm makes a market in Medimmune and Chiron. (Once again, emphasis mine)

In fact, vaccine is manufactured continously from April to November, a figure that can be found either in the manufacturer's end of fiscal year statements, or at the CDC.

The viruses contained in the vaccine are chosen each spring, based on surveillance of current circulating strains.

Instead of "MSNBC Staff and Wire Reports", the byline probably should have read "Compiled by MSNBC Staff from Wire Reports." No real journalistic effort took place in the presentation of this story by MSNBC, unless cut and paste qualifies.

Sadly, it probably does.

Posted by Bigwig at December 5, 2003 01:32 AM | TrackBack
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I think the article meant THAT STRAIN was not known when the vaccine was developed. Then the author loses points for ambiguity of antecedent but fewer than he loses with your interpretation.

Posted by: Jan at December 5, 2003 08:25 AM

I think the article meant THAT STRAIN was not known when the vaccine was developed. Then the author loses points for ambiguity of antecedent but fewer than he loses with your interpretation.

Posted by: Jan at December 5, 2003 08:25 AM

Alas, that is the reality of today's journalism. No real analysis; it's all corporatized like everything else.

And hope you feel better. If there's anything we've learned, it's that WE are ruled by the viruses. The more we mess with Mother Nature, the worst it gets. They will get us all in the end.

Posted by: lotus at December 5, 2003 10:45 AM

That sounds like a reasonable explanation, Jan. Bad writing is at least as prevalent as laziness in the j-school world.

Posted by: Bigwig at December 5, 2003 12:52 PM

I was going to make Jan's comment, but since Jan already did, I'll comment on Lotus' comment. (Comment!)

What does corporatization have to do with having or not having real analysis? Is there something in the nature of "incorporation" that forbids news providing real analyis? (And did news once provide such analysis, and if so, was this before Hearst owned half the frickin' papers in the country?)

I'm sure there's a word or phrase for what you're talking about, but I'm pretty sure it's not one based on the root "corporate".

Posted by: Sigivald at December 5, 2003 04:53 PM
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