Commentary: Good journalism a casualty of swine flu coverage

The Miami HeraldJune 21, 2009 

The swine flu outbreak that has wrecked Mexico's economy may become a case study in reckless journalism. It now turns out that it's not entirely clear whether the H1N1 pandemic originated in Mexico, as first reported, or in the United States.

Like most of you, I had taken it for granted that the disease had started in Mexico. That's what most press reports said in late April, when we saw the first headlines about this illness. Some radio and cable television presenters called it the "Mexican flu."

So earlier this week, I found myself scratching my head when I read in a Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) press release that "the new virus, which emerged in Mexico and the United States in April," has spread to 74 countries.

What do they mean by Mexico AND the United States, I asked myself. Are they saying that the new virus emerged in both countries simultaneously? Minutes later, I called PAHO to ask whether that "AND" was an editing mistake, or intentional.

Daniel Epstein, a PAHO spokesman, said that, "at this time, it's not clear that this pandemic started in Mexico." He added that reports that the disease originated in Mexico "are premature."

Hmmm. At the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), spokesman Joe Quimby confirmed to me that "no geographical location has been determined to be the point of origin of the current pandemic." He added, "We may never know in which country it started."

The lack of certainty as to where the pandemic started stems from the fact that hundreds of thousands of people cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day, making it hard to know where the virus came from. In addition, many healthy people without severe H1N1 symptoms may have not gone to a doctor, and their cases may therefore have gone undetected on either side of the border before the first cases were reported, health officials say.

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 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."

In the days that followed, many countries – including Cuba, Argentina and Ecuador – suspended all flights from Mexico. The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory recommending Americans to abstain from non business-related travel to Mexico. China stopped imports of pork meat from Mexico.

Tourism to Mexico plummeted. A friend told me he paid about $270, taxes included, round-trip from Miami to Mexico City in May, and the plane was half empty. The flu-related decline in tourism and exports will contribute to an officially-projected 5.5 drop in Mexico's gross domestic product this year.

And now, many in the Mexican press are saying that the disease started in the United States. They cite, among other things, a May 2 article in Newsweek by Pulitzer prize-winning author Laurie Garrett.

The article, which says that it is impossible to pinpoint where the pandemic started, reports that there was a case of swine flu in the United States as early as 2005, when a 17-year-old boy who had been working in a Wisconsin pig slaughterhouse fell ill.

My opinion: Perhaps world health authorities will eventually conclude that the pandemic started in Mexico. But what if they don't? What if they conclude that it started in Wisconsin or in California. Who will compensate the tens of thousands of Mexicans who lost their jobs or saw their incomes nosedive because of the collapse of the tourism industry?

I don't have an answer for how this story should have been reported early on (although Garrett's article should have shown us the way). But 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 expose reckless charlatans for what they are.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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