Swine Flu ‘a Case Study in Reckless Journalism’

Writing that “the swine flu outbreak that wrecked Mexico’s economy this spring, and that the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic last month, may become a case study in reckless journalism,” Miami Herald Latin America correspondent Andres Oppenheimer (7/8/09) admits that he “had taken it for granted that the disease had started in Mexico” since “that’s what most press reports said.”

But he “recently found myself scratching my head” over a “Pan American Health Organization press release that ‘the new virus, which emerged in Mexico and the United States in April,’ has spread to 74 countries.” Follow-up questions put to one of the organization’s spokespeople brought the reply that “it’s not clear that this pandemic started in Mexico…. We may never know in which country it started.”

But none of this stopped the usual crowd of hyperventilating anti-immigration–or rather, anti-Hispanic immigration–radio and cable television hotheads from pointing at Mexico as the unequivocal origin of the disease.

According to the Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, conservative-nationalist radio talk show host Michael Savage said on April 24, “Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico.”

In another example of irresponsible journalism cited by the watchdog group, Fox‘s contributor Michelle Malkin wrote in her blog on April 25, “Hey, maybe we’ll finally get serious about borders now.” She added, “I’ve blogged for years about the spread of contagious diseases from around the world into the U.S. as a result of uncontrolled immigration.”

On April 27, CNN‘s Lou Dobbs started his nightly show saying, “We begin with dire new warnings about the worsening outbreak of swine flu. This outbreak is spreading from Mexico to the United States and around the world.”

Indeed, Oppenheimer gives us the charming fact that “some radio and cable-television presenters called it the ‘Mexican flu.'”

The Herald reporter doesn’t claim to “have an answer for how this story should have been reported early on,” but he posits that, “just as scientists are looking into the history of the H1N1 outbreak to learn how to better handle future pandemics, we in the media should look at how to handle these kinds of stories more responsibly in the future”–and, crucially, “expose reckless charlatans for what they are.”

Listen to the FAIR radio program CounterSpin: “Bart Laws on Swine Flu” (5/8/09).