Source:  David McCandless

Bad hype, good hype?

Earlier this week, I stumbled upon another tasty infographic from David McCandlessClick here or on the image to see the interactive graphic on his website:

Source: David McCandless

 Titled “Mountains Out of Molehills:  A timeline of global media scare stories,” McCandless illustrates some media coverage imbalance on threats that did not materialize into high fatalities. 

From this, you could conclude that this is bad hype – in the interest of higher ratings, the media stokes public fears and sensationalizes uncertainty.  You may be right. 

Alternatively, you could conclude that this is good hype. 

The media may be doing its part to raise public consciousness on these threats, which prompts the public to take greater precautions.  Without that hype, who knows the results?  The public may not avoid as many wasp nests, or take as many travel/health precautions.  Consequently those fatality figures could be higher.

For years, Peter Sandman has been extolling the benefits of precaution advocacy (high hazard, low outrage), where the communication goal is to raise concerns and prompt precaution.  I suppose in hindsight, some may question whether SARS, bird flu or H1N1 were truly “high hazard” situations.  We may never know for sure, or to what extent, thanks to good hype. 

I often shake my head at media sensationalism when its guile is intended only for ratings, or to benefit specific individuals or specific causes.  But when highlighting risks leads to greater public precautions I give the media a pass, no matter the full underlying intentions.

What are your thoughts?  Share them below.


Side note:  Tomorrow represents my 17th anniversary at Ketchum and, coincidentally, my first anniversary of this blog.  I plan on celebrating both with a glass of wine.

Jan. 19 Update:  Perhaps greater precaution advocacy is required in matters of bedbugs.  According to this report in The Wall Street Journal (sub. required), 54% of respondents have not changed their behavior to avoid the pests, despite high awareness of the problem.

13 thoughts on “Bad hype, good hype?”

  1. JD, I don't know if I can agree with you in giving a pass on precaution advocacy. Part of me bristles at the idea that Peter could have been right to cry "wolf," wasting the energy and resources of those in his community. There are many real threats that do not garner such media attention, dampening the public will to address more credible potential problems and further encouraging the view that we are all sheep waiting for a shepherd (or a wolf). Peter, is that you?

    1. Hi, Ed. I see your point. But is a threat of pandemic a real wolf or a wolf's shadow? On that score, I have no problems with hype that drives action.

      Sadly, you are correct — it is too often that many real threats do not garner such attention because they're not as sensational. You need to look no further than the # of deaths from normal flu…and how little relative attention that gets from media.

  2. JD, I'd rather err on the side of precaution and assume it is good hype…but why does the coverage come to an abrupt stop the moment there is a new hot topic in the news. Makes one think, then, that it was bad hype intended solely to attract eyeballs

    1. Great point, Hilka.

      As an illustrative example, see what's happened with Toyota. It's been confirmed that there are no ghosts in the machine (i.e., that sudden acceleration is NOT a software problem, but a sticky pedal and car mat…just as Toyota said). There's been very little media attention on that….certainly not the level of media frenzy we saw when a ghost in the machine was suspected.

  3. The issue I see often coming into play isn't so much in the realm of too much (or sometimes, too little) media hype, but what J.D. and others have pointed out in these comments: that far too often, a scare gets written about for a few days, hashed around with various pundits weighing, and then whenever revelations, new data or confirmed information comes out to refute those early hysterical claims, little to nothing is then said in the media about why the hysteria arose in the first place, or that it might have been more productive to have less of the media focus on the hysteria, and more on the efforts to find a verifiable solution.

  4. It's probably worth noting that McCandless's wonderful graphic includes a lot of different sorts of risks.

    Some turned out less harmful than had been feared at least in part because precautions worked (and the media helped!). That's true of both SARS and the Millennium Bug. A lot of effort went into managing those two; remembering them as false alarms is dangerously bad history.

    Others turned out less harmful than had been feared because we got lucky. The swine flu pandemic, for example, looked pretty awful based on the early news from Mexico, but ended up milder than a typical flu season … though still the deadliest risk on McCandless's list. Mad Cow Disease is an even better example. The experts knew that millions of people (especially in the U.K.) had eaten beef from infected cattle; until the incubation period came and went, it was an open question how many of those people might be infected themselves.

    It's still an open question how serious bird flu will turn out to be. The H5N1 (bird flu) virus is incredibly deadly to humans; it has killed roughly half the people who caught it, compared to far less than one percent for most influenza viruses and only 2-3 percent for the horrific flu pandemic of 1918. But H5N1 is hard for humans to catch; it passes only with great difficulty from bird to human or from human to human. The virus is still around and still killing millions of birds and an occasional human. If it remains as virulent as it is now while"learning" efficient human-to-human transmission, it will be the most memorable disease ever. That may never happen. But there's a better case to be made that the media are under-covering the bird flu risk today than that they over-covered it in 2005-2007.

    The jury's also still out on the possibility that cell phones cause tumors. The evidence of a connection is very, very weak so far, and most experts doubt there is one. But cell phones have been around for fewer years than the latency of many cancers, so the most we can say is so far, so good. Ditto for wifi.

    An asteroid collision is a low-probability high-magnitude disaster. It won't kill anybody until it kills most of us, if it ever does.

    The hypothesis of a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism has been thoroughly discredited. The hypothesis of a connection between thimerosal in vaccines and autism has been convincingly disproved. The hypothesis that something else about vaccination has something to do with autism is still alive and kicking, though the evidence for it is weak.

    Killer wasps are real, and among McCandless's selections they're second only to swine flu in total mortality so far.

    I doubt violent video games kill anyone, and I haven't a clue if they do some kind of psychosocial harm — but they do seem to be a notable phenomenon of our time.

    The media do sometimes sensationalize risks, especially those that are entertainingly weird and sufficiently rare that we can all enjoy being frightened without actually needing to take action. And the media routinely mishandle risks that are serious if they materialize but far from sure to materialize. Journalists get the "serious" part right but miss the "far from sure" part — and then pivot and write snarky columns about how the experts said we we were all gonna die.

    The biggest problem with media coverage of risk, I think, is the incredible difficulty of keeping reporters interested in risks that are deadly but not newsworthy. Maybe warning people about deadly-but-not-newsworthy risks simply isn't journalism's job. Hence my interest in precaution advocacy.

    1. Thank you perspectives, wisdom and candor, Peter. You are always welcome to share your thoughts here. Unless, of course, that asteroid wipes us all out.

  5. We often forget that news is a product. When stories about risk fit the business model and help media companies make money, they get visibility. Lamenting news media behavior is like complaining that mockingbirds make unpleasant noises and should really sound more like robins.

  6. Interesting discussion you have initiated here JD.

    I would certainly agree with Peter that Y2K and SARS were very real threats that individuals and organisations came to recognise, accept and dealt with. I do not believe the media coverage was always helpful.

    With the influenza cases it seems to me that we are really needing to look at the message(s) to determine if the hype is good or bad. Mainly because the Bird Flu threat has not gone away, but we run the risk that the public will have a false sense of security thanks to the perception that Bird Flu was a false alarm, ‘Swine Flu’ was minor and issues around seasonal flu being a BAU problem.

    Peter’s concept of precaution advocacy was to raise awareness in “low outrage” situation. In doing this you are effectively ‘raising the alarm’ and may need to hype-up the message.

    Perhaps the real issue, as you say in your post, is the motivations of the media. They run with an issue until it is no longer newsworthy – rather than until the threat has diminished. They are not practising advocacy – just trying to sell their product.

    Scaremongering and ‘crisis de jour’ reporting make it hard for the real advocates to get their message heard. But we all want our version of the message to get out, even when it is not perfect.

    I shall toast your anniversary also.

    1. Thanks for your additional perspectives, Ken.

      When I look at the wealth of experience from those making comments above, I am humbled. Thank you.

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