Sunday, August 30, 2009

we're all going to die

Here I sit, a responsible Mexican governmental secretary doing an honest day's work -- and in walks my closest advisor.

Closest advisor (CA): "Bad news, señor secretary. The scientists say we're going to have an outbreak of swine flu this winter."

Respond I (S): "You mean H1N1, don't you? We do not want to get people upset at the pigs, again. We will have the newpapers digging around for those silly flying pigs graphics again."

CA: "Right. I meant there'll be an outbreak of -- H1N1 flu this winter."

S: "Of course, there will. Every winter people suffer from flu. H1N1 is simply the variety that is going around this year. We handled it well in the spring. We will do the same this winter."

CA: "But, señor secretary, the scientists are talking of up to one million cases. That's 50 times as many as we have already had. People will panic. We can tell them a much lower number. No one will know."

S: "People will not panic if we tell them the truth. The scientists predict 'up to one million.' That is not the same as being one million. We will talk with the newspapers. If we show them the facts, they will not do anything sensational. And we will tell them we have a plan. The best way to handle any public issue is to simply be honest with people and assure them that everything is under control."

CA: "But what about the tourists? They're not going to come here with numbers like that."

S: "If we are honest and tell the truth, people will understand."

After briefing the newspapers that the one million number is an outside case and that there is a plan in place, the secretary goes home and dreams of headlines: "Government prepared for possible H1N1cases."

He rises at his normal time, greets his wife at the breakfast table, sits down, and opens the morning newspaper to: "Health secretary says swine flu cases could rise to 1 million in winter."

The secretary wept.

I wish I could say all of this came out of my fertile imagination. The conversation did, but not the broad outline. The headline is real.

Health Secretary José Ángel Córdova Villalobos held a press conference on Friday. Based on the headlines, you would have thought he was boarding a rocket ship to escape the extermination of life on Earth.

What he announced was:

  • the current H1N1 situation is in "a very stable phase"
  • 80 to 100 cases are reported daily across Mexico
  • 184 deaths are related to the H1N1 virus
  • flu cases normally spike in the winter
  • the government has drawn up plans to deal with any possible upsurge in cases
  • there is an outside possibility of up to 1 million cases of H1N1 this winter, but the number will most likely be lower
  • the government is prepared

From that information, the newspaper editors made up a headline that sounds as if very few of us are going to make it through the winter.

Other blogs have discussed this issue before. We have discussed it.

Sensationalism sells newspapers; sentimentality does not.

Why does the New York Times not fill its front pages with stories about faithful husbands, loving wives, and obedient children? Because we see that every day in our own lives.

People will slap down their quarters for a good tale about gore, catastrophe, and death.

The little girl who lived next door to Lizzie Borden asked why none of the neighbors spoke to her. The little girl's mother responded: "Well, dear, she was very unkind to her mother and father."

If a newspaper today had the choice of printing that tale of understatement or the actual details of the axe murders, which do you think would end up as a headline story?

We can rail about it as much as we want, but people are interested in the most God-awful (and I use that in its reverent sense) tales imaginable. Newspapers and television stations would stop relying on these stories the moment people show no interest in them.

I am certain that most of you have friends who forward email to you that contain some of the most bizarre occurrences or arguments imaginable. A person with common sense would look at most of them and say: "That's just nonsense." Or: "What a waste of time." But some people -- a lot of people -- just forward them.

There was a period when I would respond to each piece of stink-mail (as I call it), and either 1) point out that the piece had already been identified as false or 2) ask what the sender wanted me to do with the email. If I got any response, the answer to number 1 was: "I just sent it along. I have no idea if it is true." To number 2: "I have no idea. I just thought it was something."

What does this have to do with our poor health secretary?

He received information that the public needed to know. He attempted to convey it as information and to reassure people. The press, on its own, decided to create a sensation to sell newspapers. The same newspapers who will call government officials liars and charlatans.

I need this warning as much as anyone. Before I pass on information, I want to be certain that I have the correct facts and the correct tone.

We use to call that being a good citizen.


Darrel said...

You seem to have a theme going here. Saturday it is all about the lack of a good quality ham. Sunday it is all about an over abundance of swine flu. I know for a fact that if you have a nice bone-in honey/orange glaze ham every Sunday, you will greatly reduce your chances of being infected with swine flu. You will have so many leftovers (think ham sandwich) that you won’t have to leave the house for the house for the rest of the week to mingle with the sneezing/coughing unwashed masses. You do run the risk of contracting Ham Disease. It is a known fact (by those that know) that 100% of the people that enjoy eating ham will eat more ham. Once infected with Ham Disease, there is a 100% mortality rate. It will eventually kill you by the end of your life. This information was obtained from a World Health Organization official who wished to remain anonymous (for obvious reasons).

Larry in Mazatlan said...

Having lived here three years now, I've come to realize that the US press is about 50-50. Fifty percent false and fifty percent out-of-context negative sensationalism. And the people up north don't even realize it. They just accept it as truth. Really too sad. Whatever sells and all for the buck, I guess.

The only northern newspapers I check with any regularity anymore are the Washington Post and the LA Times.


Felipe said...

I enjoyed writing newspaper headlines for almost 30 years. My favorite was about someone who bought an old house. She found a shrunken head (really) in the attic. It was a souvenir someone had brought back from the jungles of South America in the 1930s. The homeowner put an ad in the newspaper, offering it for sale. A reporter noticed the ad and wrote a news article about it.

My one-column headline:

For Sale:
One head,

Anonymous said...

Yes, of course, the newspapers.

Problem with newspapers is that sometimes they get it right. Like: "President Kennedy Assassinated in Dallas, Texas!" Their sources tacked the location and date. Stunning reportage.

We all know about positive reinforcement, and we also know that intermittent positive reinforcement is a stronger reinforcer of behavior than constant positive reinforcement.

So for every 1 in 10,000 stories the newspaper gets right, readers have their confidence in their reporting reinforced, strongly reinforced, like the gambler who wins $8 for $200 spent at the slot machine.

These newspaper people are wicked wizards, spinning a lunatic universe out of the worst elements of human psychology -- fear, hate, revenge, lust, greed (forget for a moment I'm describing the boy from Burns).

But humans are not helpless. Sociologists are on to these guys and have pulled back the drapes on their chicanery. David Altheide, Regents Professor at ASU, has written extensively on how the press formats reality to fit its time-slots, crushing every story into a binary plot-line. Altheide's first book, Creating Reality, is a good introduction to how news rooms do this.

Another fine book, written by a sociologist from Virginia, Before the Shooting Begins, does a very good job of showing how the press reduces every issue to its most binary and explosive elements. The professor argues that this sort of journalism is one of the reasons why we get Yugoslavias falling apart in violence.

Journalists have a large part to play in the sociological dimension of mind. When they go about creating a mind that has a paucity of options for understanding, they move our society that much closer to violence.

I'd say more, but I'm off to get my H1Ni flu shot and supply of facial masks.

John Hofer

Anonymous said...

As someone who used to talk to reporters quite frequently about various business subjects, I found most reporters to be remarkably ill-informed about their subjects. (Sorry, Felipe) And after having been burned more than once, I got into the habit of asking them to read back to me any quotes they thought they might use. That was an eye opener. Not 30 seconds removed from the statement, and it had already been horribly garbled.

After a while, I realized that the principal job of the media is to sell advertising.

We would all do well to keep that in mind as we consume their product.

As for swine flu? Someone should put up the numbers in Mexico against something like road fatalities. I'm sure it diminishes into near-irrelevance alongside that one.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where our neighbor used to keep a Vietnamese pig as a pet. My Vietnamese friend assured me that it was a particularly tasty variety. Haven't seen much of the pig lately. Hmmm.... flu or something else?

Felipe said...

I long ago grew accustomed to hearing people talk about the irresponsible press, the untruths, the exaggerations, etc. None of this talk is new. It is ancient.

However, I can tell you, from having spent 30 years in news rooms, that most of it is baloney.

Most of what newspapers write is on the money. It is not biased. It is not exaggerated. It is reporting of what goes on. And I am speaking of news pages, not editorial pages, which are biased by definition.

True, newspapers focus on the unusual because the usual is of no interest.

There is biased reporting, of course, but the great majority is reliable. It is an imperfect world.

TV news, especially of the local variety, is something else entirely. I cannot defend that.

And, of course, there is the old, reliable comeback: Go live in a country where there is no free press. See how that rubs you.

Anonymous said...


Of course the is some responsible journalism out there. Otherwise, you and I would not be able to have this meta-conversation about media.

I agree with you that television news is perhaps the worst, and it is no accident that it is the tv news room that Dr. Altheide focuses on.

Free press or no, the issue is always being responsible for the quality of our media. The issue of quality is ancient. But it is still an important issue.


American Mommy in Mexico said...

"Newspapers and television stations would stop relying on these stories the moment people show no interest in them."

Nothing sells that is not bought.

Steve Cotton said...

Darrel -- We are just porky family.

Felipe -- Great headline.

John -- Sometimes swine flu is just a cigar.

Kim -- I have had the same issue with reporters. But I am not certain we want specialists to write for a general audience. What we need are writers who can take the complex and explain it in terms easy to understand by the general public. The Economist does a particularly good job.

AMM -- Nice to see you back.

Steve Cotton said...

Someone should point out that the Secretary of Health should be congratulated for taking an up-front, honest approach to this issue. It may result in lost tourist dollars, but the government intends to be ahead of the issue this winter. (I want someone to remember that this libertartian actually said something nice about a governmental action. Hofer -- Did you write that down?)

Howard said...

As a previous government bureacrat I can relate to the story very well. The nice thing today is the internet where the government (and others) can post news releases and other information. That way interested individuals can check releases against stories and, over time, see where the truth lay.

Anonymous said...

The time I was interviewed by a reporter from The Economist, I was impressed at how much a cut above he was. And he managed to quote me correctly.


Kim G
Boston, MA