The Media Distorting Information on Illnesses

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The Media Distorting Information on Illnesses


Make sure you always use a condom or you might catch AIDS, a disease which will most likely kill us all anyway. Oh, and get your flu shot because this is going to be the worst flu season ever! And do not even think about eating that hamburger or you might put yourself at risk for Mad Cow Disease! Don’t be so quick to open up your mail, or you might get infected with Anthrax! Did you dump all the water out of the pool in the backyard? If not, mosquitoes infected with the West Nile Virus may kill you and your whole family! We better call our friends and tell them about all of this. Wait! Does sunscreen increase your risk of getting skin cancer? Are we all doomed to die from any of these threats?

As members of the information age, people grow even more dependent on the information that we get from television, newspapers, and the internet. Constantly on the move, no one has time to fact check every single headline story. As a result, we are putting our faith in sources that crank out sensational headlines to boost ratings and newspaper memberships. So should we all be living in bubbles for the rest of our lives to avoid the many diseases that are competing to take our lives? Or do we use logic to help us wade thru the myths and misinformation?

We all know about the flu shots being offered for the past two years, and every year the virus is supposedly getting worse. Therefore, you see long lines at grocery stores with elderly people along with young children to get their flu shot taken care of immediately. And as every year, the hospitals run into a shortage, then the hype of people who really need it not getting it jumps up. Yet no one asks the question “Do the flu vaccines work?” We see the word vaccine and assume that it will completely prevent us from getting sick. If someone was ask risk of dying from the flu, would the immunization that they received save their life? Or would the flu affect them as badly as if they didn’t get the shot? Kristine M. Severyn R.Ph., Ph.D. says, “Although influenza is associated with more disease, hospitalization, and death in “at risk” populations, no adequate controlled studies exist which proves that the influenza vaccine reduces the incidence of influenza in these groups”(Vaccine Risk Awareness Network).

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The influenza efficiency “drops to 30%-40% among the elderly”. This is the main group that doctors suggest should get the vaccine. They are advised to put their lives in the hand of a preventative medication that only works, at best, 40% of the time. Millions, if not billions, of dollars are spent every year on something that works less than half the time. Every one of us heard on the news how the flu vaccine is very important to those who are 65 and older, but it turns out that the vaccine wouldn’t really work for them in the first place. Stated by the Center for Disease Control in this article, the thought that the vaccine doesn’t work well for them is due to the elderly “decreased immunologic response” toward the vaccine.

So every fall we are greeted with headlines that declare that the current year is the worst year for the flu ever and that anyone at risk for catching this deadly virus, especially the elderly, should run out and get a flu shot. If you do this, you will maybe, probably, most likely not get the flu. Sure, 40% is better than nothing but why aren’t better options available. Why is the vaccine marketed as a flu-killer yet statistics show otherwise?

Author Frank Furedi of The Culture of Fear makes note of what we all know: that the media plays an important part in affecting our lives. He writes that “studies have shown that the media’s emphasis on certain crimes or diseases leads the public to acquire a heightened sense of danger” (51). Frank gives an example of a case that occurred in the UK in October 1995 and of June 1996 with the Committee of Safe Medicines issuing a notice on contraceptives. It was issued by the committee that contraceptives could be associated with a slightly higher risk of venous thromboembolism: the lodgment of a blood clot causing blockage. Therefore the communiqué advised doctors to take women off the pill and give them other options and so forth. Hearing this sent the media into a frenzy, and printing out articles and headlines and all forms of media so the community would know. Later, it was leaked then reported by the Sunday Times that “all brands of oral contraceptives are associated with an increased relative risk of breast cancer.”

Another disease that has gripped headlines around the world is Mad Cow Disease. Cattle farmers were feeding cows with food that contained a protein that came from the tissue of other sick cows. As of 2000, 176,000 cows died of the condition (Blakeslee). It was in 1996 that the first suspected case of transmission from cows to humans was suspect (Greger). Since 1996, 77 people have died worldwide, only five of which were in the United States. The world population is approximately 6.5 billion people. That means that the chance of catching Mad Cow disease is approximately a 1 in 84 million chance. You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning or dying in a plane crash. Yet we fear mad cow disease as if it were an imminent threat. With only 77 people dying of the disease, should we even be convinced that eating beef is the only common element? Even if you were to assume that half the world ate beef, you would still assume that more than 77 people would have died.

Furedi says the “different reactions were due, to the role of the media. In October the risks were played up and elevated into scare headlines” (52). People respond to the way a story is told. If your best friend told you a sad story, you would of course respond in a form of sympathy; the same goes for media. From the way a story is told, the perception of the viewers is molded into the way that it was told to them, therefore, they respond with the emotion that is associated with the story. Frank notes:

The extent of media coverage; the volume of information provided; the ways in which the risk is framed; the interpretations of messages concerning the risk; and the symbols, metaphors, and discourse enlisted in depicting and characterizing the risk. However, it is important to remember that the media amplify or attenuate but do not cause society’s sense of risk. (52).

It is true that people, in general, will panic over anything that threatens our lives. Living in a time where we do not have the patience or the energy to analyze every single news story that comes our way, we do not even allow our selves to have mid-range feelings about these threats. We either brush them off or throw ourselves into full alert mode. We value our lives above everything else and the ‘better safe than sorry’ mentality is used as an excuse for our sometimes drastic course of action. But this still does not excuse the media for playing on our innate insecurities by sensationalizing stories that are not really threats at all. Media outlets consciously induce widespread concern and hysteria to boost ratings. Our lives are nothing more than story topics. Our concerns are just Neilson ratings. The panic and misinformation that results from their latest consumer reports just mean another new headline for them. As long as the general public continues to absorb every rumor and theory like a sponge, we will continue to live in a world where change is only enacted through fear.

Work Cited

Blakeslee, Sandra. “Deaths Tied To Mad Cow Disease On The Rise.” New York Times
25 July 2000.

Furedi, Frank. Culture of Fear. New York: Continuum, 2002.

Greger, Michael. “Could Mad Cow Disease Already Be Killing Millions Every Year?”
CommonDreamsNewsCenter. January 7, 2004.
< http://www.commondreams.org/views04/0107-07.htm>

Severyn, Kristine. “Vaccines: Influenza. Flu Shots…Do They Really Work?” 2003.

Vaccine Risk Awareness Network. April 3, 2005. <http://64.41.99.118/vran/vaccines/flu/flu_severyn.htm>.


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