April 18, 2003

Is this the dawning of the age of hysteria?

Yes, the media is filled with tales of disaster. No, the end is not near.

by Richard Cairney
Folio Staff
Serra Tinic says it's important to go to more than one source for news, especially in highly-charged events such as the war in Iraq and the SARS outbreak.
Serra Tinic says it's important to go to more than one
source for news, especially in highly-charged events
such as the war in Iraq and the SARS outbreak.

No one would suggest that the war in Iraq isn't one of the most significant events of modern history, and Canada's participation or non-participation an important side story, at least to Canadians. And to dismiss Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome as insignificant would be insulting to the families of patients who have lost their lives to SARS.

We live, as the curse goes, in interesting times. But when you look at the way these issues are treated in public debate and in the media, you'd think it was the end of the world.

SARS, which is fatal in about five per cent of cases, is being sensationalized in headlines crying "Black Plague." The war in Iraq is effectively over, but in Canada the battle over our nation's role as bystander rather than participant rages on.

In the House of Commons, Canadian Alliance members of Parliament harangue Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government, which supported UN weapons inspections in Iraq, for concluding that the "regime change" currently underway in Baghdad is immoral. Fearing economic as well as political repercussions from the US, some politicians, including Alberta's Premier Ralph Klein and Ontario Premier Ernie Eves, have expressed their support for America and its "coalition of the willing."

At the same time, New Democrats in Parliament are incensed that Canadian soldiers, on exchange programs serving with American and British forces in Iraq, haven't been ordered to return home. And they allege that Canada's warships, trolling for terrorists in the Persian Gulf, are in fact part of the coalition. Strewn with hyperbole, the rhetoric seems at times so outrageous that its true intent, to merely score political points, couldn't be more clear.

Is it fair game, or is it unethical conduct to whip up emotions, not on principle but rather to advance a political position or to protect an economic standing?

Don Carmichael, a professor of political science who teaches political philosophy, says the ethics of defending or condemning Canada's position on the war are irrelevant.

"I don't think it matters, because I don't see them as inflaming a populace, I see them as trying to get a message through," said Carmichael. "It's the way the game is played. People are locked into their roles."

Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper can't give the federal Liberals his blessing on any issue, says Carmichael. The same applies to newly elected New Democrat leader Jack Layton.

"I don't think Jack Layton has ever met an issue he didn't like to spin," said Carmichael. "Layton is trying to position the party. They want every one of the 18,000 people who were in the peace march here a few weeks ago to take out an ND membership card," he said. Alliance leader Harper is doing the same thing, although preaching to a different crowd.

The media, of course, plays a significant role in all of this. If reporters weren't sticking microphones in their faces, politicians might make fewer outrageous statements.

"Democratic politics is messy," said Carmichael. "And one of the ways democratic politics is messy is it requires people like you and me and other people reading the newspapers and watching television to think about what those politicians say, and we hold them to it. So if Layton says something stupid, we remember it next time."

But that depends on whether or not those remarks are played up by the media. News coverage of the war in Iraq, and of SARS, has emphasized only certain aspects of each issue. And the public has been receiving inconsistent messages regarding SARS, says Cindy Jardine, who studies risk assessment in the Department of Human Ecology.

When SARS was first detected in the Toronto area, Jardine notes, the public was told not to worry, that washing their hands would protect them from infection. Then, televised images of masked police shutting down a hospital and evacuating SARS patients by helicopter were broadcast across the country, sending a powerful and conflicting message.

The SARS story appealed to reporters for a number of reasons: it was legitimately newsworthy, but it had many elements of a great story. It fed on a fear of the unknown, was initially thought to be the possible result of a bio-terror attack, involved medical sleuthing and gave reporters a chance to bump the war from the front pages and top of newscasts, appeasing viewers fatigued by non-stop war coverage.

"SARS is an exotic event," said Jardine. "It has a lot of unknowns and a lot of uncertainty. Pneumonia and flu are not exotic events - we accept the risks of those much more readily. But SARS is unfamiliar, and that makes it more frightening to us.

"All the messages coming out right now are reinforcing that. And the fact it's from China and can spread worldwide, gives it the same flavour Ebola once had, which is almost a non-event when you look back on it."

In fact, Jardine says SARS isn't the threat it's made out to be, "if you put it in the context of other diseases running rampant in the world today, like TB."

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that during the 1990s, as many as 30 million people died of TB. On April 12, the WHO reported a cumulative total of 2,960 SARS cases, with 119 deaths, reported from 19 countries. Health Canada reports that, of 287 probable or suspected cases of SARS in Canada, there have been 13 deaths. The federal department also estimates the annual number of deaths due to influenza at anywhere between 500 and 1,500.

The cancellation of an international oncology conference in Toronto, because organizers felt the threat of SARS was too great, perpetuated the idea that SARS was running wild, said Jardine.

"Here you have one of the groups of people we trust - health professionals and doctors. If you see a group of oncologists decide it's too risky to go to Toronto, then it's not irrational for other people to think the same way."

While reporting about SARS has perhaps exaggerated the threat, coverage of the war in Iraq has been positively dramatic, in the full Hollywood sense. Serra Tinic, a sociology professor who teaches media literacy, says coverage of the war has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster.

If you consider the news coverage as a movie, many parallels emerge: it opens with thunderous explosions in Baghdad, then builds suspension as soldiers advance toward the enemy. Fierce fighting breaks out and, despite losses, coalition soldiers bravely press on. More and more characters - reporters, soldiers, analysts and officials - are introduced. Sub-plots, like the capture of Private Jessica Lynch and her comrades, and their subesquent rescues, bring in unexpected plot twists.

Tinic says the similarities between news coverage and movies is no accident. "These events are all played out in a very Hollywood, dramatic narrative, and this all has an impact on viewers, because they are seeing the same things they'd expect from entertainment programming."

The trouble with mainstream media is that their owners are more interested in the ability to generate revenue than the ability to report the news objectively.

"One of the things I think we should be doing is teaching people how to watch TV, the same way we teach people how to read novels," said Tinic. "You come to them with a critical thinking perspective: you want to know who the author is and who the author has connections to. We need to teach people that just because something is told to you doesn't mean it's the entire story. It is very much like talking to witnesses of a car accident. They all have a different story."

Tinic cites the example of comparing war coverage from CNN, a private US media outlet, to the BBC, Britain's public broadcaster. "When the US was claiming they held Baghdad, I was flipping between CNN and BBC, and you would think it was a completely different conflict they were covering," she said.

"You have different perspectives, and if you want to know more about what is happening, if you want a broader understanding, you have to access as many sources as you can."

She agrees that SARS was the only story that could have muscled its way into the first five minutes of any news broadcast during the war in Iraq.

"What else gets reported in the news has to have equal drama or be made to have equal drama, and SARS fits that bill perfectly," Tinic said. "One story is a very scary situation that people have no control over, and the other has the potential to inflict harm on anybody."

We may live in interesting times, but Tinic says it's important we realize the sky is not, as reports suggest, falling. Impression and reality are often two different things, she notes.

"These stories do, in a sense, build upon one another; they complement one another negatively and create the perception the world is unsafe. . . .When you're teaching media literacy, the first thing you do is address how to read the media. Media literacy programs are so essential."