Pew Study: Top U.S. Papers’ Swine Flu Coverage Lacking?

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By: Joe Strupp

The recent emergence of Swine Flu received less coverage by three top U.S. newspapers than it did in major dailies in six other countries, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Tracking stories in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post between April 27 through May 10, the study found those three dailies averaged one story for every 225 cases in the U.S. Among three Spanish-language U.S. dailies — El Diario La Prensa, El Nuevo Herald and La Opinion — the average was one story for every 188 cases.

But in major papers in Mexico, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, France and China, the number of stories per Swine Flu case was higher. Mexico, with 1,626 cases, had one story for all 81 cases, the study revealed.

“Overall, the project found news consumers around the world received varying portrayals of the outbreak, its severity, how it was affecting daily living and even the name of the flu itself,” the study showed. “The coverage from these 12 papers revealed noticeable differences in attention, prominence and how the papers chose to frame stories.”

Other findings:

* The three major U.S. papers studied offered some of the broadest coverage of the outbreak of any country studied, and all stories were staff-generated, as opposed to wire copy. Despite complaints in some quarters of excessive media hype, the level of coverage was relatively moderate when matched up against the number of confirmed U.S. cases.

* The number of cases of swine flu in a given country had little to do with the volume of coverage around the world. China, for example, had the fewest confirmed cases of any of the countries studied (1), but the paper studied, People’s Daily, offered about as much front-page coverage as the average paper in the U.S., which had over 2000 cases.

* In Mexico, extensive coverage by El Universal (20 front-page stories over the 12 days) cut across a broad range of issues, from the impact on businesses to the history of the virus. But the Mexican paper largely skipped any close assessment of its own government’s response.

* The French paper Le Figaro was more restrained but also controversial in its coverage. The paper ran just two stories on the front pages, but sparked an outcry by terming the outbreak “the Mexican flu.”

* In the Spanish-language papers in the U.S., one of the most striking findings was a heavy reliance by two of the three — El Diario and El Nuevo Herald — on U.S. wire service copy to fill their pages.

“What might have seemed like blanket coverage from the U.S. press during those early two weeks of the outbreak was relatively restrained when compared with papers in other countries, at least by one measure,” the study stated. “The subject matter of the swine flu coverage in the U.S. press also was broader than most other countries (and was all staff written rather than produced by wire services or other sources). Front-page topic areas included the epidemiology of the pandemic (6 stories), the government?s reaction to the outbreak (6 stories), accounts of the virus? spread (4 stories) and the reaction of health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (4 stories).”

The survey added that, “The U.S. storyline in many ways reflected the fast-moving trajectory of events in that two-week period. In the early days of the outbreak, the three major U.S. dailies reported on the U.S. government?s response and chronicled the spread and severity of the virus with headlines such as ‘Confirmed Cases Double in U.S.; Europe Cites It?s 1st’ and ‘U.S. Declares Health Emergency As Cases of Swine Flu Emerge.’

“But as it became clear the threat was not as deadly as originally anticipated in the U.S., the papers moved into more enterprise reporting on the situation in Mexico, the epidemiology of the virus and analyses of the international response. A Washington Post piece on May 3, for example, explained how scientists traced the epidemiology of the virus. On May 5, the Los Angeles Times ran an article that showed how a ‘crusading’ Mexican newspaper dressed its reporters up as paramedics to uncover the first deadly case of the swine flu, ‘forcing the health officials to go public on April 16?a full week before a national emergency was declared over swine flu?with news of a deadly ‘atypical pneumonia.'”

The entire report can be foundhere.

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