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Avian Flu and the Surveillance Function of the News Media

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

April 26, 2006

Avian flu remains a topic heavy with scientific uncertainty, yet high in potential risk. The virus occurs mainly in birds, but since late 2003, there have been 204 reported human cases, and 113 deaths. Most of these human infections have resulted from close contact with infected birds. Almost all of the cases have been reported in South Asia and China, though more recent infections have been reported in Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, and Azerbaijan. To date, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there is no evidence that the virus can spread from human to human. Yet because viruses evolve, scientists are concerned that Avian flu may eventually be able to move from one person to another. Officials fear that because there is little pre-existing immunity among humans to Avian flu, such a change could lead to a global flu pandemic, with potentially high rates of death, and major economic disruptions. According to the CDC, it is likely to be “many months” before an effective human vaccine can be developed, mass produced, and made widely available.

As scientists work to gain a better understanding of the threat, and U.S. health officials prepare for a possible domestic outbreak, public concern and perceptions will be shaped chiefly by news coverage. Yet how much coverage of Avian flu has there been in the media, especially in comparison to the SARS outbreak of 2002 and 2003, or in relation to other contemporary issues competing for the public’s focus? Just how engaged and concerned is the public about Avian flu? And how is the public likely to make up its mind about the severity of the problem? Answers to these questions are important, since most health officials would prefer that the public be informed and concerned about the issue, but not alarmed.

How Much News Coverage of Avian Flu?

News attention has been, and is likely to remain, fragmented and event-driven, peaking in relation to newly reported human infections or in reaction to the spread of infected birds, and then quickly disappearing into periods of non-attention. This “up and down” pattern of media attention will also depend heavily on the number of other competing issues that might be defined as the “news” of the moment. Figure 1 plots the pattern of news attention to Avian flu across recent months at The New York Times and at the ABC and NBC evening newscasts. The Times, more than any other news organization, sets the agenda of issues for other media outlets, and the network newscasts remain the primary source of news for most Americans.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Media Attention to Avian (Bird) Flu

Note: Trends reflect the number of combined news reports appearing monthly on ABC World News Tonight and NBC Nightly News, and the monthly number of articles appearing at The New York Times, containing in the headline or lead paragraph “avian flu” or “bird flu.”

Since January 2003, The Times has run 267 stories, though more than half of these articles occur across just a few months, with 63 articles running in October and November 2005, and 81 articles appearing in January, February, and March 2006. The two network newscasts have run a combined 100 reports (61 at NBC and 39 at ABC), with roughly 60% of these reports appearing in either October/November 2005 (43) or between January and March 2006 (16).

News about Avian flu has competed with many other issues for the media’s attention. Though across January, February, and March 2006, 81 articles appeared about Avian flu at The Times, during this same period more than 1,000 articles ran about Iraq, and 220 articles about Hurricane Katrina. This, of course, is without accounting for the steady diet of crime, celebrity, and soft news topics featured across outlets such as Fox News, local television, and various magazines.

Moreover, despite warnings about a potential global pandemic, Avian flu has yet to earn the type of media celebrity status that SARS achieved in 2003. By July of that year, according to the World Health Organization, SARS had infected 8098 individuals across 26 countries including Canada, resulting in 774 deaths. The scope of the SARS outbreak triggered attention across American newsbeats, generating coverage from health, political, science, and business correspondents, as well as columnists and pundits. Between April 1 and July 1, 2003, The Times devoted 550 articles to the topic, making SARS one of the top news stories of the year. With similar intensity, the two TV news broadcasts made SARS a regular feature of weekly news, with a combined 149 reports across the three months.

How Closely Has the Public Been Following Avian Flu?

In light of the relatively modest levels of media attention to Avian flu, and considering the many competing events in the news, it is not surprising that relatively few Americans report following the issue very closely, and that public concern remains relatively low. Figure 2 plots the percentage of the public, who when asked, answer that they have been following the topic of Avian flu “very closely.”

Figure 2

Figure 2. Percentage Following Avian Flue “Very Closely?”

Note: With slight variations in question wording across polls, respondents were asked: Now I will read a list of some stories covered by news organizations this past month. As I read each item, tell me if you happened to follow this news story very closely, fairly closely, not too closely, or not at all closely. The outbreak of bird flu in Asia and Europe? *Indicates sample based on registered voters rather than all national adults.

Notice in the graph that public attention tracks closely with the amount of media coverage the issue may be receiving in any given month. The peak measure of attention, 32%, occurs in early December 2005, following the two months of heaviest news coverage to date. Public focus, however, has yet to reach the level for SARS, with 39% of adults in an April 2003 Pew poll and 42% in a June 2003 Kaiser survey indicating that they were paying very close attention to the SARS outbreak. The higher levels of public attention to SARS are not surprising, given the heavy media coverage to the topic during that period. Public attention to news about avian flu also falls short of the recorded high for West Nile Virus (43% following the issue very closely; Kaiser Poll, Oct. 2002).

In comparison to major political issues, according to the Pew News Interest Index, in October 2005, 69% of respondents said they were following news about the impact of Katrina very closely, and 67% said they were following high gas prices very closely. Indeed, the public’s heavy focus on these competing topics probably displaced what would have otherwise been closer attention to the threat of Avian flu.

With relatively low levels of public attention, only a quarter of Americans across polls indicate that they are “worried” that they or someone in their family might contract Avian flu, and only a quarter of Americans say that they are “very concerned” about the issue. Despite speculation that a panicked public might start hoarding Tamiflu to use in the event of a bird flu outbreak, a recent Harvard School of Public Health survey finds that only 2% of Americans have talked to their doctor about the matter. Other than a function of media coverage, low levels of public concern are also probably a product of human nature, with Americans discounting an uncertain future risk, regardless of its potential impact. Americans are also probably desensitized to the Avian flu threat based on past warnings related to Mad Cow Disease, West Nile Virus, and more recently, SARS.

Where Do Americans Get Their News and Who Do They Trust?

On the important matter of information sources and trust, in the recent Harvard survey, when asked where they had gotten information about Avian flu, 80% of respondents said television, 50% said newspapers, 34% said radio, 4% said their doctor, 5% said a government Web site, and 11% indicated a non-government Web site. When asked hypothetically about an outbreak of Avian flu in the U.S., 73% of the public said they would trust the CDC as a source of information either a great deal or good amount, followed by the Secretary of Human and Health Services at 55%, the Food and Drug Administration at 53%, the Secretary of the Agriculture at 43%, and the Secretary of Homeland Security at 32%.


Though experts are often quick to criticize the media, so far, there is little evidence that news coverage of Avian flu has promoted undue alarm among the American public. Public attention to the topic remains relatively low, while few Americans express worry that they or their family might contract the virus. Yet, looking ahead, public concern is likely to track closely with levels of media coverage, and in relation to the nature of competing events or issues. Similar to West Nile Virus, if infected birds are found in North America, or the first human cases occur, media attention and public concern are likely to sharply increase.

In this sense, the news media serve an important surveillance function. The great majority of the public will continue to pay limited attention to either the details or the nature of the issue until a major spike in news stories alerts them to an imminent and urgent problem. At that time, it is likely that a small segment of the public will turn to the Internet and to newspaper coverage for more detailed information, while the rest of the public will rely heavily on the directions and reassurances of government agencies and public figures that they trust, messages that will be encountered by way of television news.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication at Northeastern University and a CSI technical consultant.