Barrages of Media Hyperbole Incite More Panic Than Good

    Coming home for spring break this year, I was met with some tragic news from my San Diego neighborhood: A 15-year-old freshman at one of our local high schools passed away from an unexplained outbreak of meningitis last month.

     In a relatively small, tight-knit suburban community like Carmel Valley, it came as no surprise when the student’s death was plastered over every local news station within hours of her passing. She was young, pretty, popular and seemed to have everything going for her – and the bizarre circumstances of her illness put the community on edge. Healthy young athletes in the prime of their lives are not supposed to succumb to such diseases with little or no warning signs. If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone – couldn’t it?

     In coming to terms with the loss of one of its own, a grief-stricken community is presented with a few possible options for actions to pursue. Which to take, however, is often the most pressing question. If you listen to the local media, of course, the answer is as it has always been – panic.

     Let me preface my comments by saying that I believe the hearts of the local reporters and newscasters are in the right place, and I am sure they only have the best interests of the community in mind while doing their oft-difficult jobs. This certainly is a newsworthy story, and the general population should be made aware of the dangers of this disease so they can best protect themselves and their families. After all, education is the best way to combat fear and dread in the light of tragedy, right?

     However, as a lifelong resident of San Diego, I can be the first to tell you the media in this city has a long-standing tendency to sensationalize to the point of near-panic – in their quest to inform, members of the media blur the line between reporting the facts and giving the public just enough information to legitimately instill disproportionate amounts of fear in the minds of the locals.

     Case in point: My mother. As an educated, savvy woman with a background in the medical field, her response to the images being broadcast over the screen was that our entire family should immediately receive meningitis vaccinations.

    Now, I am by no means against the administration of this vaccine – I am naturally in full support of anything that makes people safer, or even feel that way. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocate that children receive the vaccine at their preadolescent doctor visit. I was more concerned by the sudden, passionate conviction with which she demanded that we undergo this treatment, and it didn’t take long to discover the cause.

    Later, she would go on to explain that a commercial promo for the local news that afternoon had roused her concern, showing rows upon rows of students getting in line to be vaccinated for meningitis. Curious, I turned on the news that evening to see for myself how the delicate situation was being handled, only to find out midway through the program that the droves of children and their makeshift gymnasium clinic were not even in San Diego, but in Fresno.

     Were these children being vaccinated for meningitis? Yes. Was it appropriate to underlay a sound bite about the San Diego meningitis victim with that dismaying footage? Not so much.

     When the next story aired, it was headed by a picture of the student and a fairly ominous caption that read, “”Meningitis kills S.D. girl, parents should vaccinate”” in big, bold capital letters. Well, it no longer eluded me why citizens like my mother seemed quick on the draw. The “”BREAKING NEWS ALERT”” told them to be – and why should they doubt it?

     This isn’t the first time innocent San Diegans have fallen prey to misguided, if not misleading, local media coverage. Back in 2001, the Y2K disaster had just come and gone, and one would think the media would take extra precautions to make sure that it didn’t needlessly alarm the public yet again. Despite this, at the height of the Africanized killer bee pseudo-epidemic that threatened to overtake us like something from a bad horror movie, local channels and newspapers were releasing helpful headlines like “”Bee Hives Swarming Throughout the County.”” Another warned us that – gasp – a swarm of (possible) killer bees delayed the start of a Padres game by a full nine minutes. Be still, my heart.

    As an avid news-watcher, my mother was well aware of the killer bees and the impending doom they were sure to bring to our neighborhood. My brothers and I were informed ad nauseam about what to do in the event of a sudden swarm – our safety plan consisted of grabbing pre-cut lengths of rubber hose and jumping in the swimming pool, where we’d be “”safest”” from the little ugly creatures (that thankfully aren’t crafty enough to swim). Nevermind the fact that the pool was a good six steps from the door to our perfectly safe and well-protected house; we were completely prepared to leap into the water for an indefinite amount of time at a moment’s notice. After all, that’s what the charming, salt-and-pepper-haired newsman had said would keep us protected, and what reason would we have to think twice?

     Of course, San Diego media is not at all unlike the industry at large – while truth and accuracy are certainly goals of the profession, so are its wicked stepsisters: ratings and profit. It’s not always easy to discern what should legitimately make you worry and what is likely the side effect of scary graphics or unnecessary hype. When shocking and tragic events occur, it is the media’s duty to give the public the information they need to come to their own conclusions about what is best for them. There’s a fine line between informing the masses and crying wolf, and it needs to be walked very carefully. If everything serious that happens is treated like a crisis, how are we to react when some legitimate epidemic strikes?

     My best advice to anyone, no matter where you are – think twice before building your Y2K shelters coated with killer-bee repellant. They’ll probably just tell you to upgrade to the newer model within a month, anyway.

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