How Media Headlines Create a Frenzy Regarding Infectious Diseases

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

While the spread of the Ebola virus caused a widespread media frenzy in North America, it proved to be an insignificant threat to global health. On the other hand, there was a much more severe contagious disease that every year, infects 36 million people in the United States, killing 5,000 people each year. It is so widespread in the winter that we have gotten accustomed to it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t attract the media attention that Ebola did. Let’s see how American media covered one of the most serious diseases in the U.S., influenza.

A newspaper on a wooden desk.
Media headlines predicted a severe flu season in 2017. (Image: Zerbor/Shutterstock)

Media Coverage of the Influenza Season

In the fall of 2017, ran a story titled “Australia’s Tough Flu Season May Be Bad News for the U.S.” the story predicted that based on the doubled cases of flu in Australia compared to the previous year, the flu season in the U.S. would also be rough.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The article quoted a Baylor professor who urged people aged over six months to get their flu shots. He was quoted as saying that although the flu vaccine was imperfect, it could make the complications milder and the death rates lower. Several other articles made the same point. For example, CBS News with the headline, “Officials Brace for Potentially Bad Flu Season in the U.S.,” quoted Dr. Tom Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who believed that at that time the vaccine was the only tool to protect people against the virus.  

Learn more about the media’s take on mental illness.

Different Reactions to Flu Predictions

However, not everyone accepted that a tough flu season in Australia predicted a severe one in the northern hemisphere. For example, CBC News from Canada in its October 2017 story quoted a public health chief who expressed doubt about an upcoming severe flu season. The headline read “Reports of Nastier-Than-Usual Flu Season May Not Be Accurate, Says Public Health Chief.” But the article justified the headline by saying that in Canada, vaccination is free of charge. The chief asked people to get vaccinated, especially high-risk groups. A more accurate headline would have encouraged people to get vaccinated to avoid having a severe flu season like Australia.

A syringe being prepared for vaccination.
Many news stories encouraged people to get the flu vaccine. (Image: Numstocker/Shutterstock)

In October 2017, as flu cases in the U.S. started to emerge, news headlines continued to encourage people to get their vaccinations. For example, a vaccine expert debunked four myths regarding flu vaccinations in an article by The Huffington Post. The title of the article was “Flu Vaccine Fake News That Goes Viral During the Flu Season.” One of the myths was that vaccines make people vulnerable to infections, and it leads to miscarriages. Although these stories are useful in dispelling myths, people might get the exact opposite point of the article by only skimming through the stories.

News Stories Questioned the Effectiveness of Vaccination

By November, flu cases were going up, and news articles still promoted vaccination. A CNN article titled “Flu Season: It’s Early, But Experts Are Concerned” did too, but with a different tone. It mentioned that the previous year the effectiveness rate of the flu vaccine was “just” 42%, and “Even if vaccinated, people had inadequate protection against the flu.”

Close up of a hand holding a digital thermometer over a cup of tea , a paper tissue and tablets.
Media outlets had different reactions to the predictions about the upcoming flu season. (Image: Sokom/Shutterstock)

Other articles had already pointed out that the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, just like seatbelts that don’t prevent injuries 100% of the time, or fire alarms that don’t prevent all deaths from fire. The article indeed made a valid point, but it can cause doubts among people, leading to reduced cases of vaccination.

The effectiveness of vaccines does not lead to the protection of individuals. Rather, vaccines protect the community. The flu vaccine becomes more effective when more people are vaccinated. The more people are vaccinated, the fewer people will spread the disease.

Not only did such news stories failed to capture this point, but some news stories also turned against vaccines in November 2017. For example, NBC News ran a story with the headline “Here’s One Reason Flu Vaccines Are So Lousy: They’re Grown in Eggs.” The headline implies that vaccines are so lousy for many reasons, and just one of them was mentioned in the article. The article points out the low technology used in developing vaccines. But it does say that researchers recommend getting vaccinated because it is better than nothing.

Media panic continued to rise in December, with a CBS News headline “This Year’s Flu Vaccine May Only be 10% Effective, Experts Warn.” It was based on the Australian experience in the winter, with 10% vaccine effectiveness against one strain. There were no indications that the same thing would happen in the United States. It was just media frenzy creating adverse reactions among people.

Learn more about drug prices in the news.

Common Questions about How Media Headlines Create a Frenzy regarding Infectious Diseases

Q: Is the flu more severe than Ebola?

According to the statistics, the flu has higher fatality rates than Ebola. In the United States, the flu infects 36,000 people and kills 5,000 people each year. But there were only 11 cases of Ebola in the United States in 2018.

Q: Is the flu shot 100% effective?

The flu shot is not 100% effective. Like seatbelts that do not prevent deaths or major injuries all the time, flu shots cannot prevent all cases of influenza. Also, vaccines do not protect individuals. They protect communities by limiting the spread of the disease.

Q: Do flu shots lead to miscarriages?

No, flu vaccines do not lead to miscarriages. It is one of the myths about flu shots that have been dispelled by experts.

Q: Can the flu vaccine prevent the flu?

The flu vaccine is not perfect. It cannot prevent the infection 100% of the time. But it can lead to milder symptoms and make the complications less severe.

Keep Reading
Health News in the Social Media Echo Chamber
Truth and Lies in Mass Media
Exploring Coffee’s Health Benefits: Science Versus Hype