On April 24, the headline at the Drudge Report drooled, “SARS Bug Said Deadlier Than AIDS!” If you read that while living in Toronto, you’re forgiven if you thought it was overkill. At the time, Drudge, a popular Web site that lists links to international news stories (lifting this exquisitely Malthusian item from a Scottish tabloid called the Daily Record), was a little late to bludgeon Torontonians with hype. The city had already generated enough on its own. After all, that was the week when Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, called the World Health Organization’s Toronto travel advisory “bullshit.” It was also the week that Mel Lastman turned in an apoplectic, eye-popping performance when he railed against the WHO on CNN. “They don’t know what they’re talking about,” the city’s mayor declared, banzai-style. “I don’t know who this group is. I never heard of them before.” Hello, Toronto: we have a problem.
Despite other, less off-putting attempts to deflect the bad publicity, the story was too big, the disease too scary and the city too close to the American border to escape international attention. The “don’t panic” response of panicky public officials was ideal media fodder, so unless you were living under a rock in Kyrgyzstan with your fingers in your ears, you knew circumstances in Toronto were grim. And then, just when the situation looked like it was improving, it got worse. Predictions of a swift recovery proved premature in light of the disease’s comeback, which dovetailed neatly with mad cow in Alberta and the encroaching summertime threat of mosquito-borne West Nile virus. The deluge of doom didn’t stop there, either: U.S. jitters about domestic terrorism ratcheted up anxiety levels, and the murder of Holly Jones in Toronto upset anyone who ever cared for a child. May was a banner month for bad news.
Conventional wisdom holds that if the media are given an inch, they’ll take 1,000 miles, sensationalizing stories in a drive to attract audiences. But as Toronto’s first SARS outbreak wore on, newspapers and news channels devoted less space to hyping the illness and began to focus on positive developments instead – as is now the case with mad cow disease. It seemed only natural to reassure audiences that this was not, in fact, The End, and that mass terror wasn’t appropriate (at least not yet). So sage headlines like “In U.S., Fear Is Spreading Faster Than SARS,” which ran mid-April in the New York Times, began to appear.
According to experts, however, that was the approach that really demonized the disease. “The media’s anti-panic response has the paradoxical effect of making the public more likely to panic,” says risk communications expert Peter Sandman, a New Jersey-based consultant who has advised governments and businesses on how to manage public outrage in crises. “A paragraph like ‘everything is under control’ shows up as reassuring in a content analysis, but its effect on the public is, ‘Oh, shit! If this is what under control looks like, obviously they’re lying to me. Not only do they not know what they’re doing, they’re not even prepared to acknowledge they don’t know what they’re doing. I’d better get my ass out of town.’”
Even if the number of SARS cases does spike, most Torontonians are staying put. The disease doesn’t directly threaten most of them – which was one of the notable discrepancies between hype and reality during the first outbreak. Unless you were a victim, health-care worker or Jennifer Lopez (whose movie shoot moved to Winnipeg), life in Toronto didn’t change much, in spite of some media efforts to paint the city like Pompeii. As Joseph Scanlon, director of the Emergency Communications Research Unit at Carleton University in Ottawa, notes, in disasters “people make sensible decisions. They don’t panic. It’s the media that tend to get carried away.” Claims that the crisis was overblown seemed sound then, if based only on the evidence of a crowded mall or a standing-room ride on the subway.
Now that SARS is back in the news – not that it ever left, really – early attempts by the government to defuse fears about the risks of the illness look rash. And because the media followed suit, their credibility is also at stake. “Toronto has much wisdom on how to manage the infection, but no wisdom in my judgment on how to manage the communication,” Sandman says. He warns against media and the government sending extreme messages, either comforting or apocalyptic. In other words, no downplaying anxieties, or wondering aloud whether the WHO somehow confused Toronto with Beijing. Sandman advises that Canadian officials support the idea that living with SARS is, as the U.S. government calls terrorist precautions, “the new normal.” From here on out, health care changes forever.
Risk experts agree that the official message must reflect the new reality, and needs to be carefully delivered so the media don’t mangle it. Sandman cites Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, as a good example of someone who cautiously measures out her good news with bad. The doctor, who appears in this month’s Vogue, is quoted as stating of SARS: “Even though we would like to take a deep breath and relax, this is absolutely the wrong time to do that.” Like Sandman, Scanlon says a judicious, empathic official response is much more valuable than an emotional one. “What people want to hear is not opinions – ‘this is bad, this is good’ – but ‘this is what we’re doing, step by step,’ ” he says. “That is both the officials’ and media’s responsibility to communicate. You want editorials screaming at somebody, fine. But Joe Friday was right – give me the facts.”
As cable news junkies know, it’s not only what you hear from the media, it’s also how many times you hear it. In discussing Canada’s recent barrage of health troubles, Sandman says, “People have more trouble distinguishing between crises when there’s a high density of risk-related news. The media don’t make any real effort to help us decide which is important and which isn’t.” Tricia Wachtendorf, field director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, says that’s why it’s vital that media messages not be mixed. “I’ve heard people out there wonder whether or not the media are giving the public too much information,” she says. “I wouldn’t see that as the case. But people hear snippets that may come from less reliable sources, so that’s why it’s really important that information be clear.”
But when a decrease of public trust in the media is coupled with an onslaught of catastrophic news, as it is now, the integrity of the press is questioned. Like David Letterman joked on his Late Show, “We’ve got SARS, mad cow disease, an orange alert – the news is so bad the New York Times doesn’t have to make it up,” referencing the recent scandal at the newspaper in which a reporter was found to have faked sources and datelines. It’s worth noting, too, that although the disaster hype damaged media credibility, it harmed the Canadian economy much more – any PR flack who still claims that there’s no such thing as bad publicity obviously isn’t planning to hold a conference in Toronto. And increasingly sensational, repetitive coverage by CNN – slanted to compete with rival network Fox News in the U.S., which is now beating CNN in ratings and is known for its lurid, talk-radio approach to television news – means that Canada isn’t leaving the international limelight any time soon, not until we’re disease-free.
So what’s the good news? Risk communicators unanimously believe that media and officials should strive to educate the public. So long as it’s fair and balanced, they believe too much news is never enough, and right now we’ve got plenty. “What the media do is trigger our interest in something and make us ask questions,” says Scanlon. “But we don’t make decisions on the media alone.” A healthy dose of skepticism doesn’t hurt either. Being informed also means not believing everything you read.
Copyright © 2003 by Maclean’s