Sick of bird flu

This time two years ago, the press was busy working itself into a lather over an unlikely celebrity: H5N1, a strain of avian influenza that epidemiologists feared could mutate into an easily transmittable form that would sweep the world in a deadly pandemic. As millions of bird carcasses piled up and the virus spread across Asia and into Europe, media accounts became increasingly and predictably frantic.

Meanwhile, the human death toll held steady and then, in 2007, actually declined. These days, mentions of avian flu rarely crop up and, when they do, they tend to have a faintly ridiculous, almost nostalgic air about them, like worries about the Y2K bug or the coming Ice Age.

Almost as quickly as the hype began, skeptics began to bash press accounts for being needlessly  alarmist, and looking back, it's hard to disagree. In particular, reporters and researchers who portrayed bird flu as an imminent and unstoppable threat did more harm than good: As months went by without a pandemic, the more overblown stories started to look suspiciously like journalists crying wolf.

The more sensational reporting that came out over H5N1 surely helped move copy, but it also reflected the reality that for journalists on daily deadlines, it's hard to strike the right balance when reporting on complicated ecological problems, whether they be bird flu or species extinction. Temper your story too far, and your readers could be confused while your editor will wonder why it should run at all. As a result, avian flu was first covered as an impending crisis, and then simply not covered at all.

A story that ran recently in the New York Times, "A Pandemic That Wasn't But Might Be," picked up the trail, examining the threat of bird flu today now that most people's attention has drifted away. In the process, the piece demonstrates that the press doesn't have to have only two modes – presenting issues as either a panic or a picnic. Rather, it offers an even-handed and insightful analysis, eventually concluding that while the virus may not have spread to humans yet, there's little reason to think it couldn't.

"Avian flu is one of the rare diseases that is killing people in the third world but could easily (if it mutated) make the jump to killing people in the West," the story's author, Donald G. McNeil, told Times science reporter Andy Revkin on the paper's Dot Earth blog. "So people care more. Or cared more. Now they’re getting cynical…. Maybe, as we get better at this stuff, all alarms will be false alarms. But I’m not counting on it."