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Germany's Media Tangle With Bird Flu

Dennis Stute (tt)
February 23, 2006

The media is liable to exaggerate the danger presented by bird flu to increase newspaper circulation and TV quotas. Media experts warn that inflammatory reports can provoke irrational reactions.

A scene from the TV series "24" or a picture postcard from the German coast?Image: AP

German newspaper headlines have been offering readers various horror scenarios when it comes to the spread of avian influenza. The most widely circulated German newspaper Bild was, as usual, louder than most on Wednesday. With "Bird Flu -- World Cup Cancelled?" stamped across the cover page, Bild put a cherry on top of a week-long feast of sensationalist reporting, which included headlines like: "Fear on the Rise," "House Pets Soon to Be Killed?" "Virus Alarm," "Enough Medication for Every Seventh German," "No Flu Vaccines Left," and "… Millions to Die of Bird Flu?".

"The media have succumbed to bird flu at the moment: They are more sick than the birds themselves," said sociologist Willi Streitz of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Kiel. "One often has the impression that journalists make up their headlines out of thin air, and then look for experts who would support their claims."

Headlines more important than research

Deutsche Tageszeitungen
Editors of German dailies know that shocking headlines sell more papersImage: Bilderbox

Reports about bird flu often overlook the fact that the probability of infection is extremely low. There have been only 170 known cases around the world, and 91 people have died. The soccer World Cup would be cancelled only if a flu epidemic broke out, for which the virus would have to mutate and start spreading from person to person. But that's the small print that Bild readers would have only found on page eight -- if they looked that far.

"Reports often do not differentiate between the potential danger of a pandemic and the advance of the virus," said Winfried Göpfert, an expert for scientific journalism at the Freie University in Berlin. But tabloids, such as Bild aren't the only culprits. Many newspapers have printed headlines, such as "Bird Flu in Germany," which have created an impression that people are in danger, too, Göpfert said.

Fear and horror

"The serious media fall under the strong influence of the tabloids to exaggerate things which horrify their readers, although there is absolutely no reason for that," said Stephan Russ-Mohl, director of the European Journalism Observatory (EJO) in Lugano, Switzerland. "Through mere quantity, the topic gains in importance to the public," he said.

BdT Vogelgrippe in Ostvorpommern - Usedom
Searching for dead birds and new headlinesImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

Serious newspapers, like the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitug, have devoted page after page to the bird flu. And in many newspapers, the images used to illustrate the articles have frequently appeared to contradict the texts, Russ-Mohl said. "Millions of pictures of people in protective clothing have been published, which suggests a great danger of contamination."

He pointed out that when there's little news to report, editors face the task of making something of less significant topics. "Even in difficult editorial working conditions, one should think about whether one is spreading fear," Russ-Mohl said.

Risk is a risky business

Risk is always -- relative to the probability of occurrence and scope of possible danger -- fundamentally newsworthy, according to Georg Ruhrmann, who researches risk communication at the University of Jena.

Vogelgrippe erreicht Rügen toter Schwan
Images are often more shocking than the news being reportedImage: AP

"When journalists report about risks, they usually add an additional one on top: the uncertain becomes even more uncertain, the spectacular even more spectacular, and the damage even more catastrophic," said Ruhrmann.

Whether it's terrorism, food scandals or crime, the last 10 years have seen an increased presence of topics that frighten people, above all on privately-owned, commercial TV channels, he said.

"The population is infected with frightening topics, but before they can really work through them, journalists are already writing about something else," Ruhrmann criticized. "And then you're left more scared of the bird flu than of crossing the street, although the latter is actually more risky."

Irrational reactions

Usually, a frightening topic is pursued for a limited period of time without creating permanent attitude changes, he said. A case in point is the AIDS epidemic. With fewer and fewer reports covering AIDS, the practice of unprotected sex actually increased, even though the infection risk remained the same. Warnings can under certain circumstances turn into hysteria, clarification into stupidity. The falling sales of poultry show that the reports of the bird flu can lead to irrational reactions, Ruhrmann said.

But Göpfert of the Freie University said reporting on bird flu has performed an important role in putting the pressure on the authorities to prepare for the realistic possibility of a pandemic.

Sociologist Streitz, on the other hand, said that the media are slowly entering a "phase of reflection."

"In the beginning, everybody rushes to write about it, which then develops its own dynamics," Streitz said. But he said he didn't see the bird flu reports as "creating panic."

"People are usually level-headed. You really have to try very hard to create real panic."

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