Another day another deadly outbreak, drawing the reality of a human apocalypse even closer – or not? If it’s not Ebola that’s going to end the human race it’s antibiotic resistance and if it’s not that, or swine flu, or the Zika virus, it’s definitely alien invaders – the list just goes on and on.
Further developments in the Ebola and bird flu outbreaks erupted in the headlines last week.
Whilst it is the duty of the media to inform us about the spread of infectious diseases for public safety, often journalists are accused of exploiting stories to make for more shocking headlines and to sell more copies. Clearly some publications do this less subtly than others, but increasingly, news outlets pick up on stories from one another and compete to try and become the most circulated.
If we take a journey back to the not-so-future 80s – the time when the public genuinely believed you could ‘catch AIDs’ from toilet seats – we witness the HIV and AIDs scare stories that made up one of the most negative health campaigns in modern history.
By the mid-80s, 7,500 people in Britain had been diagnosed with HIV. The terror, often promoted by the media, by the then still unexplained, disease, resulted in people wanting to stay away from anyone who may have been carrying it. It was wrongly referred to in reports as the ‘gay plague’. Victims, of which were largely part of the gay or drug-taking minorities, were outcast and a huge amount of stigma formed that still echoes in society today. HIV and AIDs became the new leprosy.
Of course, AIDs was a highly effective bandwagon to jump on when it came to selling papers – stories of sex, celebrity exposes, moral enterprise, conspiracy theories and the opportunity to slander a minority that was already being marginalised by society.
Some believe that it was a classic example of the media exploiting their power and duty to inform the public.
Now, nearly 30 years on, we would hope that our press no longer report on infectious diseases inaccurately and that the public’s health is of paramount importance.
However, scaremongering is still a method of attention seeking in practice today. Just recently headlines swept the nation that Ebola could spread to the UK in ‘just three weeks’ – a terrifying thought. But how often do any of these diseases actually cause an epidemic in the UK? To date, just 197 British citizens have caught Zika virus.
With 3,200 people being diagnosed with life-threatening meningitis and associated septicaemia, surely we should be focusing more on the danger of developing these diseases than catching something from the other side of the world like Zika virus, for which we have a lower chance.
For PR professionals specialising in healthcare, it is really important that they don’t fall into the trap of over-sensationalising the news they sell to journalists. The industry should be aware that health news is becoming desensitised – and the public often feel that health reporting is not always accurate.